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Film / The War Game

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"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.

The War Game is a 1965 docudrama created by Peter Watkins. Its intention was to realistically portray the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain, specifically how utterly ineffective the plans of the British Government were in regards to preparing the country for surviving and rebuilding after such an attack. That the plans were so ineffective is largely because it would have been totally impossible to save even half the UK's population from death in the event of even the most conservative nuclear strike - the contemporary USA calculated that even she (the world's no.1 economy) did not have had the medical supplies and facilities to treat those wounded in a single attack upon Detroit. Given her inability to protect her citizens in the event of an actual strike and the constant fear and paranoia that knowledge of its lethality would bring, successive British governments decided to keep the details of the 1955 Strath Report and its recommendations secret and focus the UK's limited resources on nuclear deterrance. As they saw it, the only nuclear strike the British people could survive was one that never came.


Originally created to be shown on The BBC, it was banned from television after the BBC judged the film to be "too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting." However the film did receive a limited theatrical release, and was finally shown on television in its entirety in 1985.

This film provides examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: Played 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.
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  • 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) 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: Mainly because British television didn't get colour until a few years later.
  • Docudrama: The film takes a unique approach to this style. 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.
  • 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 proliferation of nuclear arms, the events that took place would 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 opens 2 days before 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 four to eight could be prepared.
  • Man on Fire: Shown several times during the firestorm that results from the attack.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. He notices the camera is filming him and so he flips a two-fingered salute at the cameramannote . This would have been considered very shocking in 1965.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks:
    • One man recalls a story of someone trying to give 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 inscriptions on the rings can be used to identify those burnt beyond recognition.


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