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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.

Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse (1967)

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Martine Beswick, Tony Beckley and Norman Rodway- a deadly trio in Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse.

I have always had a weakness for Peter Collinson’s film The Penthouse, based on C. Scott Forbes’ play The Meter Man, in which three miscreants, Tom (Tony Beckley), Dick (Norman Rodway) and Harry (Martine Beswick) invade the borrowed luxury flat of two lovers involved in an illicit tryst – Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Bruce (Terence Morgan). It’s a bleak little film, superbly photographed by the gifted Arthur Lavis, offering an uncomfortable taste of what was to come in the 70s and beyond, as social proprieties crumbled, and people became more and more self-absorbed, selfish, and narcissistic.

There are strong echoes of Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Heathcote Williams in the film’s script, which some viewers might consider a precursor of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which Haneke filmed twice in 1997 and 2007. Here are two people comfortably ensconced in what is supposedly a safe, domestic haven – even if it is an adulterous one – and by the simple act of answering the door, their lives are transformed forever – for the worse – by complete strangers.

However, Haneke’s film involved a great deal of physical cruelty and violence; Collinson’s film makes the entire ordeal psychological, and the film is much the better for it. In short, it’s more restrained, more cerebral, and an altogether superior film.

But all of this has a twist ending, worthy of the film itself – there has never been a legal DVD release of the film, though terrible bootlegs can easily be found on the web, along with the film’s trailer, but none of these materials give one any real sense of the film, or of Collinson and Lavis’s superb CinemaScope framing, color design, and the riveting performances of Beswick, Beckley, and Rodway.

At the time the film came out, Roger Ebert was a big fan, and sought the then-28-year-old Collinson out for an interview, during which he noted that “the headline on the press release describes Peter Collinson as ‘the man who came from nowhere and is on his way to somewhere.’ ‘Just precisely where, they don’t say,’ Collinson grinned. ‘I’m not one of these directors with his life-span all mapped out, and a deep ponderous philosophy to put into my films. All I want to do is make movies as well as they can be made. Period. No philosophy.’

Collinson, at 28, has made two movies: The Penthouse and Up the Junction. Neither has been commercially released yet, but Penthouse got a warm reception at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Although almost nobody outside the movie business has even heard of him, Collinson is probably the hottest young director in England right now. Stories of his working methods in The Penthouse are related by other directors with a touch of awe. He made it in 24 days for less than $100,000, and supplied his studio with a finished print two days after shooting ended.

‘That makes you popular at the front office,’ Collinson said, ‘but it doesn’t mean a thing if the movie’s no good. I don’t cut corners to save anybody money. But I don’t fool around. A lot of directors will shoot a scene from every conceivable angle, tying up actors, wasting time, spending a fortune on salaries and overhead. Then they get into the editing room and try to figure out which angle looks best. Not me. I figure the shot out in my head and shoot it just once or twice. I edit in the camera, you might say, so when the shooting’s over I have a movie . . .”

His story is unusual. The son of itinerant provincial actors, he was an orphan at 8 and a ’street urchin,’ by his own admission, at 10. Through a series of improbable chances, including acting experience at an orphanage for the children of theater people, he gradually worked himself into the theater and then into television as a BBC director.

He got into movies rather casually, buying all option on Nell Dunn’s best-selling Up the Junction for $1,000 and then proposing himself as its director. He was given the low-budget Penthouse to do first, as a warm-up, and produced a shocking thriller with a bizarre surprise ending.

The story concerns a real estate agent and his mistress, held captive in a penthouse by two very peculiar men named Tom and Dick. Their cohort, Harry, lingers offstage until the final incredible scenes. It is a suspense movie, ‘a thriller’ Collinson says. The audiences at Cannes and Berlin found a psychological message in it, but Collinson doesn’t care.

‘I make movies to entertain,’ he said. ‘This may sound funny, but I don’t have any desire to communicate my own opinions to anybody. I think the director should be the medium by which the audience gets the story, and that’s all. A good director is a good storyteller.’

Collinson’s next film will be The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. The budget is $2,800,000, and Collinson noted wryly: ‘My salary will be bigger than the total cost of ‘Penthouse.’ But my methods won’t change. I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up. Audiences aren’t as stupid as many people believe. Orson Welles knew that, and it damned him in Hollywood for years.’

He smiled. ‘That could happen to me, too,’ he said. ‘But I think times have changed, and there’s an audience for a thoughtful movie now. Still, if I bomb as a director I’ve still got some other things to do. I barnstormed the country as a teenager, playing in second-rate variety shows. I can still do a mean turn as the back legs of a calico horse.’” Paramount Pictures released the film,  and then it vanished. I’ve never seen it offered on television, even on TCM, which has a reference page for the film.

Of course, The Italian Job was a huge hit, and was subsequently remade by directed F. Gary Gray in 2003 into an even bigger hit, but after that, Collinson struggled to find his footing within the industry, and despite his protestations that he simply wanted to be an an entertainer, he clearly was interested in doing more social commentary, but soon found himself adrift in a series of mediocre films, during which his temper frayed, and his health failed.

Collinson died of cancer at the age of 44, leaving a career of largely unfulfilled promise. The Penthouse is his simplest, bleakest, most adventurous film. Don’t let anyone tell you anything more about the plot, which has one surprise after another nestled inside each turn of the narrative, but hopefully, someone will bring the film out in its proper aspect ratio, and you can see for yourself where the 1960s were headed – into a commercial wilderness of endless consumption and self-value, in which surfaces are more important than the depths they conceal.

The Penthouse (1967) – another forgotten film that deserves a proper DVD release.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962)

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.

From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,

‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”

And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.

It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .

The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”

Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”

A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.

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.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by 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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