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BFI Restores Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965)

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Peter Watkins’ The War Game is a terrifying look at how our future could go horribly wrong.

On March 28th, 2016, the BFI will bring Peter Watkins’ controversial BBC productions Culloden (1964),  a brilliant reconstruction of the famous battle of 1746, and the Academy Award-winning The War Game (1965), which was banned from TV screens for twenty years, to Blu-ray for the first time. Both films have been newly remastered to High Definition and will be presented together in a Dual Format Edition (also contains a DVD). An array of special features includes a new interview by film editor Michael Bradsell, who worked with Peter Watkins at the BBC, audio commentaries for both films and short films about each one.

Hailed as a breakthrough when it was first broadcast in 1964, Culloden – which brilliantly reconstructs the famous battle of 1746 – stunned viewers by approaching its historical subject matter in the style of contemporary TV news coverage. Watkins’ The War Game, about a limited nuclear attack on Kent, blended fact and fiction to create a disturbing vision of the personal and public consequences of such an attack. Banned from TV screens for twenty years, it was through its cinema release in 1966 – and its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 – that it gained a loyal and vociferous following.

As Wikipedia effectively summarizes the narrative of The War Game, “filmed in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. A Chinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the United States authorizes tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw that decision, 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, the US president authorizes the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Russian strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fueled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack, and hypothesizes that in any nuclear crisis, the USSR would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counter-attack, 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. The Medway town of Rochester is struck by an off-target missile 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. 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 offenses; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desire 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 traumatized congregation. The closing credits include an instrumental version of Silent Night.”

Indeed, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of The War Game, “Watkins achieves remarkable authenticity. Using a hand-held camera and grainy newsreel film, he shows firemen dying of gas poisoning as the flames explode. The heat generated in the center of a firestorm, we are told, reaches 800 degrees. It creates an updraft so powerful that trees, automobiles and human bodies are sucked into it by 150 M.P.H. winds. All oxygen is drained from the atmosphere. As the voice continues, we see firemen plucked from the ground and literally blown into the flames.”

While Culloden is an excellent “you are there” recounting of the famous battle of that name, it’s Watkins’ The War Game which is the indispensable item on this disc. Commissioned and produced by the BBC, The War Game was nevertheless turned down flat for screening on British television at the last minute, right before the scheduled screening date of October 7, 1965. The BBC, in making the decision, said that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Watkins, predictably, was furious.

With a television screening thus blocked, the film was then released in the United States on a theatrical double bill with, of all things, Luis Buñuel’s allegorical featurette Simon of the Desert (1965), which has a running time of 42 minutes – so that the two films, presented together, constituted the length of an average single feature film. The “one two” punch of the films stunned audiences at time, and as mentioned above, The War Game was so realistic that it actually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 (emphasis added) – all the more astonishing because it is entirely a fiction film, although the possibility of such a war happening was, at the time, very real indeed.

Using non actors and actual locations, The War Game is perhaps the most realistic film ever made about the potential effects of nuclear war, and as Roger Ebert commented at the end of his four star review of the film, “they should string up bedsheets between the trees and show The War Game in every public park. 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. And, somehow, it should be shown to the leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, the men who have their fingers on the doomsday button. If the button is ever pushed, the world’s nuclear arsenal contains the equivalent of 20,000,000 tons of TNT apiece for you, and for me, and for every blessed person on this earth.”

The War Game - another classic film brilliantly restored by the British Film Institute.

100 Year Old Canadian Film Found, Restored

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

A one hundred year old film has been found and restored – against all odds.

As Shawn Conner reported on December 6, 2014 in The Vancouver Sun, “It’s been lost, found, restored, misunderstood, and restored again. This weekend, 100 years after its initial release, In the Land of the Head Hunters is once again being released, this time in a digitized format. Written and directed by Edward S. Curtis, the 1914 film is the American photographer’s attempt to document the customs of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of the Central Coast, while telling a story about how their ancestors lived.

But the film, which opened in New York City and Seattle, disappeared soon after its initial release, having made less than a seventh of what Curtis spent on it.  It wasn’t until 1947 that a film collector found a 35mm nitrate print in a back alley. He donated his find to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In the late ’60s, anthropologists Bill Holm and George Quimby used the museum’s damaged, incomplete version to make a 16mm version. Holm then took the 16mm up the Inside Passage and showed the film at a number of Kwakwaka’wakw villages.

‘It was the first time anybody up there had seen it, even though many of their parents had acted in it,’ said SFU emeritus professor Colin Browne, who served as a consultant for a new restoration. Holm brought some elders to watch the film at the Newcombe Auditorium at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. ‘They spoke to the screen the words they thought the characters were saying, and layered those with some comments,’ said Browne, who taught film history, production and critical writing at SFU School of Contemporary Arts until about a year ago. ‘That became the soundtrack of the movie.’

Adding the recordings of the Kwakwaka’wakw elders, Holm and Quimby refashioned the film as In the Land of the War Canoes. ‘That’s how it showed up in the ’70s, with new intertitles and the Kwakwaka’wakw soundtrack,’ said Browne. Good portions of the beginning and ending were missing. ‘It seemed to everybody that it must be a documentary.’ In the Land of the War Canoes, with its depiction of warring tribes and First Nations customs, was mostly shown in anthropology classes in universities, and rarely in film studies classes.

But the original got a revival following the discovery of the original score in 2007. Around the same time, a 35mm print of the film’s final reel was also discovered. A restored version was screened in various cities, including Vancouver in 2008. The restored version is made up of footage from both the 16mm and 35mm prints, as well as still images in places where footage has been permanently lost or damaged. (The still images come from the Library of Congress. At the time In the Land of the Headhunters was made, producers copyrighted their work by submitting stills from every scene of their films.)

At the screenings, orchestras and ensembles played the original music along with the restored version. Among the musical groups was Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, and it is their recording that appears on the digital version, which [was] released Sunday, Dec. 7 on DVD by Milestone Films. The Land of the Head Hunters is the first feature film made in B.C., and the first ever with an all-indigenous cast. It deserves to be seen for those reasons alone, but it’s also full of indelible images that have inspired other filmmakers, Browne notes.

‘People haven’t really had a chance to see the film the way we’re going to see it now, which is probably the best restoration we’ll ever have,’ Browne said. ‘I’m hoping film scholars and historians will see it and they’ll go “Oh my God, here’s another great film, we have to include this in the canon of cinema.’” And indeed, the canon of film is constantly expanding – due in large part to archival work like this.

See the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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