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More from year 1966
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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produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC, it caused dismay within the BBC and also within government, and was subsequently withdrawn before the provisional screening date of 6 October 1965. 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…”
The film eventually premiered at the National Film Theatre in London, on 13 April 1966, where it ran until 3 May. 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.
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.
The narrator opens with how Britain’s nuclear deterrent policy threatens a would-be aggressor with devastation from Victor and Vulcan Mk II nuclear bombers of the British V bomber force. In a crisis, these would be dispersed throughout the country; in a war, so would the thermonuclear strikes against them, on top of already extensive bombardment of major cities.
On Friday, 16 September,[a] the UK declares a state of emergency. The Chinese have invaded South Vietnam, and the United States has authorised their forces there to use tactical nuclear warfare. The Soviets and East Germans threaten to invade West Berlin if the U.S. does not withdraw its decision. In the southeast county of Kent, emergency committees of city and borough councillors are faced with receiving a mass evacuation of children, mothers, and the infirm. Homeowners are forced to billet and feed the arrivals under threat of imprisonment, and unoccupied homes are requisitioned. Ration cards are issued. The following day, civil defence distributes a booklet detailing the hazards of nuclear war; the booklet had been available for some years, but did not sell very well. The emergency siren system is tested; it is estimated that by the time an attack could be confirmed to the system, there would remain some 2.5–3 minutes to impact, or in the case of a submarine attack, possibly under thirty seconds. There is a run on construction supplies, and price gouging puts them out of the reach of many.
The US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place. Two U.S. Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorises the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. The film remarks that many Soviet strategic IRBMs are believed to be liquid-fueled and stored above ground, making them extremely vulnerable. It hypothesises that the Soviet Union would be obliged to fire all of them in a very early stage of a nuclear exchange to avoid their destruction.
On 18 September a doctor, now on the staff of an emergency medical aid unit, pays a house call to a family in Canterbury, Kent, along with two civil defence workers. At 9:13 am the air-raid sirens start to wail in the distance, followed by a klaxon horn from a police car. The family and visitors frantically try to move furniture into a makeshift shelter. At 9:16 am a one-megaton Soviet thermonuclear warhead overshoots Manston Airfield, 12 miles away, and airbursts six miles away. One of the defence workers is bringing a boy in from the yard, and both are struck by the heat wave at a distance to cause third-degree burns, and “melting of the upturned eyeball.” The people inside frantically try to put out the fires until the shock front hits.
27 miles away, seeing the explosion gives a small child severe retinal burns. His father scoops him up and the family hide under a table as their house trembles from the blast wave, then the one from Gatwick Airport, Sussex, 41 miles away. Rochester burns from a missile that exploded off-course on its way to London Airport. Firemen take severe casualties from the >100 mph winds of the firestorm. As the firestorm’s center rises to 800 °C, and it consumes oxygen and replaces it with methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, responders and civilians alike collapse from heat stroke and the gases and die where they stood. By 10:47 am, British V-bombers near Russia’s border inflict the same on its people.
Armed police shoot victims who have been triaged and assigned to be left to die. PTSD and other conditions are widespread, and the police and British Army lose several of their number to the strain. In Kent, which is described as “lightly hit”, there are far too many dead to bury. Officials in the Rochester area burn corpses and collect their wedding rings in a bucket for later identification. As the film notes happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many become “apathetic and profoundly lethargic, people living often in their own filth.” As food supplies dwindle, authorities in Kent eventually withhold food for those maintaining law and order. Hunger riots turn deadly. Anti-authority elements seize a police ammunition truck, and bloodily seize and pilfer a government food control centre. Policemen are killed. Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offences; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. The country’s infrastructure is destroyed, and basic medicines and medical care are unavailable. The initial stages of scurvy set in. The film ends in a refugee compound in Dover on the first Christmas since the war. Bewildered and traumatized orphan children are asked what they want to grow up to be, and they answer that they “don’t want to be nothing” or simply not answer at all. “Silent Night” plays over the closing credits. […]
Last updated on September 17, 2023
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