Follow TV Tropes


Film / The War Game

Go To
"This is nuclear war."

"Technically and intellectually, we are living in an Atomic Age. Emotionally, we are still living in the Stone Age."

Before The Day After and Threads, there was The War Game, a 1965 mockumentary drama created by Peter Watkins.

The film's intention was to realistically portray the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain, and to demonstrate how utterly ineffective the actual UK Government plans then in place were with regard to preparing the country for survival and rebuilding after such an attack. That the plans were so ineffective is largely because, in reality, it would have been totally impossible to save even half of the country's population from death in the event of even the most conservative nuclear strike. The contemporary USA calculated that even it (the world's no. 1 economy) did not have the medical supplies and facilities to treat those wounded in a single attack upon a city such as Detroit. Given the inability to protect their citizens in the event of an actual strike, and to forestall the constant fear and paranoia that public knowledge of this would bring, successive British governments decided to keep secret the details of the 1955 Strath Report and its recommendations, and to focus the UK's limited resources on nuclear deterrance. As they saw it, the only nuclear strike that the British people could hope to survive was one that never came.

Originally created to be shown by The BBC, The War Game was banned from television after being determined to be "too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting". However, the film did receive a limited theatrical release (and remains the only film to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature while being a work of fiction) and was finally shown on television in its entirety in 1985, as part of a week-long BBC programming block commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

This film provides examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: Played grimly straight.
  • Apathetic Citizens: Subverted; the film makes the point that public ignorance and apathy has a lot to do with failure of the authorities and the media to address the subject of nuclear war.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 1 by the end of the film. This is in stark contrasts to statements given in interviews throughout the film that predict a Cozy Catastrophe.
    American Nuclear Strategist: After a nuclear attack on the United States would people live as they're accustomed too? With automobiles, ranch houses, freezers, and television and so on? No one can say.
  • Cozy Catastrophe: Interviews with Government experts predict a post-nuclear holocaust Britain would be this. The reality is...quite different.
  • Crapsack World: The pre-nuclear world isn't too great either. In addition to the ongoing conflict, the British Government's transition to war plans take effect at the start of the film. It's pointed out that the policies are so disruptive that even if there wasn't a war, it would take 1-4 years for Britain to recover economically.
  • Cycle of Revenge: One of the questions asked of civilians is if they would want the British V-Bomber force to destroy an equal number of Russian cities if Britain was attacked. Juxtaposed with shots of the nuked city of Rochester are the responses from the civilians who all express a wish to retaliate. Some do express misgivings about retaliating but still say they'd want a retaliation because there would be no other option.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The statements from the "American nuclear strategist" (possibly an Expy of Herman Kahn or Henry Kissinger) come across as this, especially his stated belief that both sides of the conflict in World War III could stop just shy of complete destruction and go into a recovery/armistice phase, during which time World Wars 4-8 could be planned out. Hard not to hear the sarcasm in that last bit.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Justified, because British television didn't get colour until 1967.
  • Downer Ending: The final segment of the film takes place at Christmas. It doesn't make the scene any less depressing.
  • Dumb Struck: The survivors of the attack. The film describes them as having intense lethargy and inertia, and the children don't want to grow up to be anything. Even the soldiers can't bring themselves to speak above mumbling.
  • Eye Scream: Thankfully any actual injuries to the eyes are not shown. That doesn't stop the narration from describing them however.
  • Failed Future Forecast: Perhaps one of the few examples where this was thankfully played straight. The film predicts that, due to the worldwide proliferation of nuclear arms, the events it depicts could likely occur by 1980.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: One of the purposes of the film, aside from realistically portraying a nuclear attack, is to show how unrealistic the preparations of the British Government were in regards to coping with the aftermath, and would most likely fail even if no missiles were fired.
  • Fate Worse than Death: One of the title cards for the post attack segment outright states "Would the survivors envy the dead?"
  • From Bad to Worse: Things deteriorate significantly as the film goes on. An American soldier points this out in the segment where NATO battles Soviet troops.
    American Soldier: If things don't get better soon, then all these weapons (short range rockets) will be slamming away nuclear warheads! And then God help us all!
  • Hell Is That Noise (In-Universe): A nuclear blast wave is described as resembling "the sound of an enormous door, slamming in the depths of Hell".
  • Just Before the End: The film begins two days prior to the nuclear attack.
  • Like You Would Really Do It (In-Universe): The rioting in Berlin is juxtaposed with interviews of civilians who are convinced there will not be a war. Even the "experts" interviewed consider nuclear war an unlikely scenario:
    American Nuclear Strategist: In the next world war, I believe that both sides could stop before the ultimate destruction of cities so that both sides could retire for a period of ten years or so of post-attack recuperation, in which World Wars IV to VIII could be prepared.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": When the sirens sound, everyone panics.
    Narrator: This could be the way the last two minutes of peace in Britain would look.
  • Mercy Kill: Police shoot Category 3 wounded because their injuries are fatal and drugs can't be spared to ease their passing.
  • Mockumentary: The film takes a unique approach to this style, and not just in terms of its utterly non-comedic mood. The segments depicting the attack and its aftermath are presented in a documentary style format, juxtaposed with interviews of civilians and government officials to show just how inadequate the preparations the British Government made for a nuclear attack really were, as well as the public's lack of knowledge about the mechanics of things like radiation and NATO's first strike policy. There's also out of universe narration that describes the events as being what would happen during a nuclear attack.
  • Mood Whiplash: Done intentionally. The more disturbing scenes are juxtaposed with interviews of people claiming that a nuclear war is survivable, and even necessary.
    Anglican Bishop: I believe in a system of necessary law and order. And I still believe in the war of the just.
    Commentator: Within this car, a family is burning alive.
  • Moral Event Horizon (In-Universe): Even the traditionally law-abiding middle class resort to theft and murder to get food from government storage warehouses. After policemen are murdered, the authorities resort to firing squads in an attempt to keep law and order.
    "When morale falls, ideals fall or may go, and behaviour becomes more primitive, more a thing of instinct."
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Some of the more prominent interviewees (namely the Bishop and Nuclear Strategist) aren't named, but the film makes it clear that their dialogue is based on actual words said by real people in their discipline. Also in the segment where the US President is forced to deploy NATO tactical nukes, the President is not named but a picture of then US President Lyndon Johnson is shown.
  • Opening Scroll: Played straight in the beginning, explaining Britain's nuclear deterrent policy, and used several times throughout the film. Often to juxtapose a statement about nuclear weapons with a scene of what would really happen to demonstrate just how unrealistic the expectations of what nuclear war would be like were.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Mockingly invoked by one scientist interviewee:
    "Technically and intellectually, we are living in an Atomic Age. Emotionally, we are still living in the Stone Age. The Aztecs, on their feast days, would sacrifice twenty thousand men to their gods in the belief that this would keep the universe on its proper course. We feel superior to them."
  • Precision F-Strike: One man whose house is billeted to house displaced refugees quietly utters "Bloody hell," which is quite shocking for the time the film was made.
  • Red Alert: The Four Minute Warning is shown. The narration points out that it's only effective for ICBMs, for missiles launched from submarines the warning time would be less than 30 seconds.
  • Sarcasm Mode: The voice delivery of the American nuclear strategist segments often comes across as this, making the lines about "planning for World Wars IV-VIII" and whether or not American lifestyles would survive a nuclear exchange seem like pithy snark, making the guy a potential stealth Only Sane Man.
  • Shown Their Work: Arguably a factor in the show being banned from broadcast:
    • The effects of a nuclear explosion are accurately portrayed, drawing reference from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    • The first strike polices of NATO and the Soviet Union are explained: NATO was at the time planning to increase reliance on tactical nukes (even if the Soviets used conventional weapons), and most of the Soviets' ICBMs were stored above ground (and thus vulnerable to attack) which means when they were facing a nuclear strike, they would have to literally use them or lose them.
    • An extensive analysis is done on Britain's policies regarding a nuclear conflict, explicitly how inadequate and unrealistic the plans for surviving the attack were (due to the British government misleading people about a nuclear holocaust being a survivable affair like The Blitz, something the Strath Report had explained at length was very much not the case), and how ill informed the public was.
  • Storyboarding the Apocalypse: The film realistically describes what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain.
  • Taking You with Me: After the Missiles fall upon Britain, the commentator grimly states the time and notes that by the time the cities and military sites were bombed and the country was in flames (literally), The V-bomber force would have reached the borders of the USSR and would have exacted Great Britain's retaliation. Ensuring that the Soviets will burn just like the UK. The final words uttered about their role says that their targets are cities and people, just like the missiles that hit their country.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Pretty much all of the interviewees After the End.
  • V-Sign: After the ammunition truck is sacked and the drivers are killed, a youth is shown cocking and loading a gun he steals out of the back. Noticing the camera is filming him, he angrily flips a two-fingered salute at the cameraman.note  This would have been considered very shocking in 1965.
  • Vox Pops: The main action is intercut with several man-in-the-street interviews showcasing the general public's ignorance of the effects of nuclear war and their feelings about a hypothetical retaliatory attack.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks:
    • One survivor recalls somebody offering him a pound note in exchange for a loaf of bread. He refuses, saying "You can't eat a pound note."
    • Wedding rings are removed from corpses; not because they're valuable, but because the authorities hope the inscriptions on the rings can be used to identify those burnt beyond recognition. One official is shown holding up an entire bucketful of them.