See the handout on Culloden.
Meaning of the Title
PW spent 2 years reading hundreds of books on nuclear war and interviewing advocates of the use of nuclear weapons (clergy, civil defence experts, scientists, intellectuals). PW came to conclusion that there could be no "happy ending" once nuclear war had broken and was concerned that no-one seemed interested in asking what would happen if it did and how people would cope.
The assumption behind the film is that an American threat to use nuclear weapons against Chinese troops which have entered South Vietnam is countered by a Russian threat to take over West Berlin. In the resulting tension a riot erupts at the American controlled Checkpoint Charlie at the border between East and West Berlin. When war breaks out between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, Nato divisions are sent into East Germany where they encounter numerically superior Russian forces. The West responds with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. This escalates into an attack by Russia on Western Europe with nuclear missiles. Missiles fired at Britain fall short of their intended target and land on civilian population centres like the County of Kent.
The film uses a mixture of "live interviews" with participants; interviews with military, police, religious and civil defense leaders; and grainy "newsreel"-like shots of the suffering and destruction caused by the bomb.
The film exposes the inadequacies (or even the complete impossibility) of the civil defence measures planned by the British authorities to save the lives of civilians in time of nuclear war. Attempts to evacuate women and children fail because of the inaequate number of shelters. Panicking civilians who attempt to buy material to buld their own shelters at home fail because of the shortage of materials, escalating prices, and lack of time. Fire storms (like Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo) overwhelm the fire fighters. The sheer number of injured overwhelm the medical services who need police assistance in setting up triage facilites (only treating those who stand a very good chance of recovering - the rest are left to die, mercy killings undertaken by police). The volume of corpses pose an enormous health risk because they cannot be removed and thus must be cremated in situ. Civil law and order begin to break down when looting for food and supplies occurs. Gradually a police state emerges in order to ration scarce resources and protect "essential pesonnel".
The BBC's decision not to show their commissioned film on TV (perhaps due to political pressure) and their great reluctance to grant the film a theatrical release disillusioned PW and led to his resignation and eventual emigration. The much vaunted openness and liberalism of the national broadcaster was put in question. The producer of documentaries for the BBC, Mrs Winfired Crum Ewing commented on the BBC's decision, justifying it on the grounds that the British people had coped well during the Blitz in WW2 and should do the same if attacked by nuclear weapons (implying that they would not behave in the same way as the Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki):
Well, I have great sympathy with the BBC, having commissioned The War Game and then refusing to show it. There's no difficulty in seeing The War Game if you want to see it... But, having lived in the South-east of England throughout the war (WW2), having seen how people behave in circumstances of war and bombing, it was an absolute slander on humanity. His observations were profoundly wrong... this is not the way people behave towards each other in times of stress... I think it was a stinking film. We don't need these emotional, left-wing intellectuals to tell us that we can (not?) destroy the world.
When I see a film like The War Game, I am ashamed of it, and think the BBC was quite right to ban it. And I hope, shown in a country like this (USA) where you have not got the personal experience of seeing how ordinary people react to an extraordinary situation, that you will not believe that this is true. I'm not a left-wing intellectual, am I? (Shaheen, p. 113).
Possibly influenced by the account of the impact of the atomic bombing on 6 civilians in Hiroshima by the American journalist John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987).
Robert Jay Lifton, Death in Life: The Survivors of Hiroshima (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968). Based upon interviews of survivors by American psychiatrist conducted in 1960-62 in Japan. Trauma of being "immersed in death", confusion of not knowing what had happened, inability to help familar or neighbours trapped or dying, coping mechanism was "psychic numbing", guilt that they survived while others did not (often random), problem of coping with late effects of bombing (encounter with death not over - "permanent encounter with death"), destruction of family and neighbourhood support structures meant many had to cope alone (4-5,000 atom bomb orphans in H, disintegration of families as 2/3 family members died near hypocentre and 1/2 all families lost main bread winner). Higher incidence of suicide and unemployment among hibakusha (a-bomb survivors).
Jack G. Shaeen, "The War Game", in Nuclear War Films, ed. Jack G. Shaeen (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), pp. 109-115.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage caused by the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, trans. Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain (New York: Basic Books, 1981).
Peter Evans (Home Affairs Correspondent for The Times), "The UK Front," in Nuclear Attack: Civil Defnce. Aspects of Civil Defence in the Nuclear Age. A Symposium, ed. The Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies (Oxford: Brassey, 1982), pp. 169-92.
Robert Jay Lifton, Death in Life: The Survivors of Hiroshima (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968).Things to Note
1. The measures attributed to the British civil defence program: selection criteria for evacuation (no fathers, no able-bodied men over 18); compulsory billeting for those evacuated (racial tension); ID cards; rationing; last minute hand-delivery of the Civil Defence Handbook.
2. The attitude of the church - one must learn to live with the bomb.
3. Are PW's assumption plausible: misguided missiles, 3 1 megaton blasts falls on Kent?
4. Would the British people behave as they had done during the Blitz in WW2 or as PW shows us - the break down of law and order, looters executed on the spot, food riots.
5. The psychological impact on civilians - the mental shock (the 1,000 yard stare of combat veterans), apathy and lethargy, children have no hope for the future. Would the survivors eventually come to envy the dead in post-nuclear Britain?
6. The sanitation problem of disposing of thousands of corpses, identification from wedding rings (based on Dresden experience)