The War Game

The War Game is a 1966 British pseudo-documentary film that depicts a nuclear war and its aftermath. Written, directed and produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC, it caused dismay within the BBC and also within government, and was subsequently withdrawn before the provisional screening date of 6 October 1965.[1] The corporation said that "the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting. It will, however, be shown to invited audiences..."[2]

The War Game
The War Game FilmPoster.jpeg
Directed byPeter Watkins
Written byPeter Watkins
Produced byPeter Watkins
Narrated byMichael Aspel
Peter Graham
CinematographyPeter Bartlett
Peter Suschitzky (uncredited)
Edited byMichael Bradsell
Distributed byBritish Film Institute
Release date
  • 13 April 1966 (1966-04-13)
Running time
44 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The film eventually premiered at the National Film Theatre in London, on 13 April 1966, where it ran until 3 May.[3] It was then shown abroad at several film festivals, including the Venice one where it won the Special Prize. It also won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967.[4][5]

The film was eventually televised in Great Britain on 31 July 1985, during the week before the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the day before a repeat screening of Threads.[6]


The War Game depicts the prelude to, and the immediate weeks of the aftermath of, a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. The narrator says that Britain's current nuclear deterrent policy threatens a would-be aggressor with devastation from Vulcan and Victor nuclear bombers of the British V bomber force.

The film begins on Friday, 16 September (presumably 1966; this date did not appear again until 1977). A news report tells of a Chinese invasion of South Vietnam; tensions escalate when the United States authorises tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw its decision to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese, the US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle. In order to turn the tide, President Johnson authorises the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Soviet strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fuelled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack and bombings. It hypothesises that in any nuclear crisis, the Soviet Union would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counterattack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.

In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. On 18 September at 9:11 am, a doctor visits a family with an ill patient. As he finishes checking up on her and steps outside the air-raid sirens start to wail in the distance, followed by a klaxon horn from a police car. The doctor rushes back in with two civil defence workers and starts bringing tables together to create a makeshift shelter. Suddenly, the town of Rochester is struck by an off-target one-megaton Soviet thermonuclear warhead aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile's explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. The air in the centre of the firestorm is replaced by methane and carbon dioxide and monoxide and the temperature rises to about 500 degrees. The firemen soon pass out from the heat in the chaos. By then the V-bombers carrying green Yellow Sun gravity bombs and Blue Steel standoff missiles reach the border of the Soviet Union and presumably breach anti-aircraft defences by using a special instrument in their cockpits to jam defending radar signals. They head to their countervalue targets, civilian cities.

Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies. There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country's infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin. Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offences; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several traumatised and bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desiring to be "nothing." The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatised congregation. The closing credits include a version of "Silent Night".


The story is told in the style of a news magazine programme. It wavers between a pseudo-documentary and a drama film, with characters acknowledging the presence of the camera crew in some segments and others (in particular the nuclear attack) filmed as if the camera was not present. It features several different strands that alternate throughout, including a documentary-style chronology of the main events, featuring reportage-like images of the war, the nuclear strikes, and their effects on civilians; brief contemporary interviews, in which passers-by are interviewed about what turns out to be their general lack of knowledge of nuclear war issues; optimistic commentary from public figures that clashes with the other images in the film; and fictional interviews with key figures as the war unfolds.

The film also features a voice-over narration that describes the events depicted as plausible occurrences during and after a nuclear war. The narration attempts to instil in the viewing audience that the civil defence policies of 1965 have not realistically prepared the public for such events, particularly suggesting that the policies neglected the possibility of panic buying that would occur for building materials to construct improvised fallout shelters.

The public are generally depicted as lacking all understanding of nuclear matters with the exception of the individual with a double-barrelled shotgun who successfully implemented the contemporary civil defence advice, and heavily sandbagged his home, but the docudrama does not return to this modestly prepared individual; instead, for the rest of the drama, it focuses primarily on individuals who did not understand the preparations to be made in advance or otherwise failed to make such preparations, and follows the pandemonium these individuals go on to experience.

The film contains this quotation from the Stephen Vincent Benét poem "Song for Three Soldiers":

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?

Of his intent, Peter Watkins said:[7]

... Interwoven among scenes of "reality" were stylized interviews with a series of "establishment figures" – an Anglican Bishop, a nuclear strategist, etc. The outrageous statements by some of these people (including the Bishop) – in favour of nuclear weapons, even nuclear war – were actually based on genuine quotations. Other interviews with a doctor, a psychiatrist, etc. were more sober, and gave details of the effects of nuclear weapons on the human body and mind. In this film I was interested in breaking the illusion of media-produced "reality". My question was – "Where is 'reality'? ... in the madness of statements by these artificially-lit establishment figures quoting the official doctrine of the day, or in the madness of the staged and fictional scenes from the rest of my film, which presented the consequences of their utterances?

To this end, the docudrama employs juxtaposition by, for example, quickly cutting from the scenes of horror after an immediate escalation from military to city nuclear attacks to a snippet of a recording of a calm lecture by a person resembling Herman Kahn, a renowned RAND strategist, hypothesizing that a counterforce (military) nuclear war would not necessarily escalate immediately into countervalue-targeted (i.e. civilian-targeted) nuclear war. The effect of this juxtaposition is to make the speaker appear out of touch with the "reality" of rapid escalation, as depicted immediately before his contribution.


The film was shot in the Kent towns of Tonbridge, Gravesend, Chatham and Dover. The cast was almost entirely made up of non-actors, casting having taken place via a series of public meetings several months earlier. Much of the filming of the post-strike devastation was shot at the Grand Shaft Barracks, Dover. The narration was provided by Peter Graham with Michael Aspel reading the quotations from source material.

BBC screeningEdit

The War Game itself finally saw television broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC2 on 31 July 1985, as part of a special season of programming entitled After the Bomb (which had been Watkins's original working title for The War Game).[8] After the Bomb commemorated the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[9] The broadcast was preceded by an introduction from Ludovic Kennedy.[10]


The film holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93% based on 14 reviews, with an average score of 8.46/10.[11]

Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect score, calling it "[o]ne of the most skillful documentary films ever made." He praised the "remarkable authenticity" of the firestorm sequence and describes its portrayal of bombing's aftermath as "certainly the most horrifying ever put on film (although, to be sure, greater suffering has taken place in real life, and is taking place today)." "They should string up bedsheets between the trees and show "The War Game" in every public park" he concludes, "It should be shown on television, perhaps right after one of those half-witted war series in which none of the stars ever gets killed."[12] David Cornelius of DVD Talk called it "one of the most disturbing, overwhelming, and downright important films ever produced." He writes that the film finds Watkins "at his very best, angry and provocative and desperate to tell the truth, yet not once dipping below anything but sheer greatness from a filmmaking perspective [...] an unquestionable masterpiece of raw journalism, political commentary, and unrestrained terror."[13]


The film won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, The War Game was placed 27th. The War Game was also voted 74th in Channel Four's 100 Greatest Scary Moments.[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Chapman, James (2006). "The BBC and the Censorship of The War Game". Journal of Contemporary History. 41 (1): 84. doi:10.1177/0022009406058675. S2CID 159498499.
  2. ^ "BBC film censored? (Parliamentary question asked in the House of Commons by William Hamilton MP about the TV film 'The War Game')". The National Archives (CAB 21/5808). 2 December 1965.
  3. ^ The Guardian, 1–3 April 1966
  4. ^ "The War Game - IMDb" – via
  5. ^ Sean O'Sullivan, "No Such Thing as Society: Television and the Apocalypse" in Lester D. Friedman Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, p,224
  6. ^ Heroes By John Pilger pg 532, 1986, ISBN 9781407086293
  7. ^ "The War Game". Peter Watkins. 24 September 1965. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  8. ^ "BBC - The War Game". BBC.
  9. ^ "The War Game Part 2". Peter Watkins. 24 September 1965. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  10. ^ "wed play season nine". 2004. Retrieved 8 January 2012.
  11. ^ The War Game (1966), retrieved 26 February 2019
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The War Game Movie Review & Film Summary (1967)". Retrieved 26 February 2019.
  13. ^ "The War Game / Culloden". DVD Talk. Retrieved 26 February 2019.
  14. ^ "100 Greatest Scary Moments: Channel 4 Film". Channel 4. Archived from the original on 16 December 2009. Retrieved 8 January 2012.

External linksEdit