Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Soldier, Gaunt Soldier: Peter Watkins' The War Game

Today, we have a guest blog from Simon Bestwick to celebrate the launch of his novel Hell's Ditch, which is available either from Amazon or direct from the publisher Snowbooks. For the next seven days you can get the hardback or the ebook at a discounted price over at the Snowbooks website.

Anyway, here be the Bestwick's post:

Soldier, Gaunt Soldier: Peter Watkins' The War Game

As a writer your work’s the sum of your experiences: all you’ve seen and done, and the stories that have reached you. One that reached me, and shaped my novel Hell’s Ditch, was Peter Watkins’ The War Game, a film made for the BBC in 1965.
The War Game was Watkins’ second British film, and his last. Its original broadcast was cancelled by the BBC under pressure from the Ministry of Defence. Watkins, disgusted, left the UK, first for America – where he made the equally unsparing Punishment Park – before settling in Sweden. Despite winning the 1966 Best Documentary Oscar, the film wasn’t shown on British TV until 1985, when it was finally screened as part of a season commemorating the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So what was so shocking?
Like Watkins’ first film, Culloden, (1964) The War Game is shot in a documentary style, narrated mostly by Michael Aspel, a TV presenter who became notable hosting game shows and This Is Your Life but was, at that time, best known as a newsreader. Its topic was nuclear war.
The film depicts the possible consequences of a nuclear attack on Britain. There are vox pops from men and women in the street, statements from churchmen, philosophers, politicians, doctors and nuclear strategists on the morality, nature and effects of nuclear war, all of this intercut with the film’s ‘live’ action: dramatisations of the events that precipitate the attack, followed by an unflinching portrayal of the attack itself and its effects.
The narration is cool and clinical, never emotive. At this distance, Aspel’s voice calmly tells us, the heat wave is sufficient to cause melting of the upturned eyeball, third degree burning of the skin and ignition of furniture.
In contrast, Watkins depicts the holocaust that follows in graphic detail: firestorms sweep the bombed cities, rendering firefighters’ attempts to combat the devastation futile. The attack’s victims suffer horrendous body burns. With doctors unable to treat more than a fraction of cases, the worst-injured patients are placed in a ‘holding section’ to die untreated; later, armed police officers end their suffering with a gunshot. A glassy-eyed civil servant explains how they’re keeping the wedding rings of the dead to identify them, showing the camera a bucket half-full of jewellery. A doctor calmly describes the symptoms of radiation sickness, and then those of scurvy (since most survivors, he points out, will be unable to obtain Vitamin C.)
And it doesn’t end there. The narration cites the aftermath of the bombings not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo. Many survivors are listless, apathetic zombies. Thousands more will suffer PTSD (as we’d call it now) from what they’ve gone through; vastly exceeding any resources available to treat them, most will be permanently traumatised.
But the child survivors, staring emptily into the camera to say “I don’t want to be nothing,” in dead, lifeless monotones, are the most chilling prospect of all: subject to such trauma in their formative years, many may go on to develop terrible character disorders. These are the inheritors of the world the nuclear bomb has left.
If the conclusion of The War Game reminds us that what we have seen has not been real, it’s scant reassurance: It is now possible that what you have seen happen in this film may already have taken place before the year 1980. Even knowing, as we do now, that it didn’t, is limited comfort when you remember that those weapons – and the possibility of their use – still exists.
Watkins set out to show that Britain was both hopelessly ill-informed on nuclear war’s nature, and hopelessly unprepared to cope with its effects – indeed, that its effects would be so devastating that no preparation would prevent the slaughter, devastation and eventual social collapse that the film shows. The official reaction to the film showed he’d touched a real nerve.
The War Game is up there with the similar-themed Threads as one of the most terrifying, dread-making films I’ve seen. It probably helps if you were born before 1980 and can remember the grim Mexican stand-off of the Cold War, but I defy anyone to watch it without a chill seeping into their bones.
The fear of nuclear war haunted my childhood; it fed into Hell’s Ditch and the world it’s set in. In particular, with The War Game, Watkins’ vision of the psychological trauma wrought by the conflict helped shape the book. The world of Regional Command Zone 7, Attack Plus Twenty Years, is a haunted one. All those who remember the time before are surrounded with its ruins, unable to forget, dogged by the ghosts of those they’ve lost; those who’ve grown up in the devastation have been made cruel and pitiless by it. And there’s no way back.
Forget Saw or Hostel, Insidious or Sinister: if you really want to be terrified, watch The War Game.
Simon Bestwick is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His new novel, Hell’s Ditch, is out on 1st December.

       You Tube clip from The War Game

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