Close Analysis: Peter Watkins’s The War Game (1965)

Sequence Timecode: (00:04:10 – 00:08:20)

Based on an estimated projection of how Britain might cope with the escalation, events, and aftermath of global nuclear war in the 1960s, Peter Watkins’s The War Game (1965) shocks and disarms its viewers with the distressing realities of educational facts blended potently with visual enactments of possible future scenarios of death and destruction. In this essay, I shall study a short sequence from The War Game in order to interrogate the politics of its visual form, before calling into question the effectiveness of Watkins’s politicised use of what he himself critiques as the ‘monoform’. I will then conclude by investigating the film’s relationship to aesthetic form and the politically ideological based on Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni’s ‘e’ category of cinematic ideology outlined within Cahiers du Cinéma.

The short collection of scenes in question evolves around communicating and visualising to the viewer simulated realities of nuclear war preparation. As the clip begins, the hand-held camera quickly zooms into a blurry close-up of a black woman within a mass crowd of white evacuees. The shot is sporadic and unconventional, its physical jolting and uncontrolled aesthetic calls instantly to documentary filmmaking. For a moment, the woman looks directly into the camera from a distance; she is aware of the camera, as we are aware of her confusion and grief. However, as the camera cuts to a wider shot revealing the entire crowd, she vanishes into the vastness of the mass, never to be seen again. For the most part, this example highlights the symbolic way in which Watkins treats the personal within The War Game. His documentary styled camera seemingly ‘happens’ to come across this woman, and for a brief moment, sympathises, exchanges gazes, and shares in her isolation. The film, for spontaneously brief moments of time, becomes personal, making icons of suffering from individual glimpses of personal turmoil. The viewer is not introduced to this woman, or even told her name, yet her direct stare into camera cuts through the film’s otherwise political message to make clear the connection between political and personal. Here, Watkins avoids his own trap, which he would later go on to describe as the ‘personalization of history’. Critical of the ways in which the victims of 9/11 were depicted within western media, he describes these individuals as “repeatedly prodded to tell how much they missed their dead son/daughter/brother/mother – accompanied by endless dissolves between their crying faces, and portraits of their deceased family members.” (Watkins, 2003) Watkins wishes not to use prolonged images of suffering as the main ideological thread of his film, but instead deploys them as both recognisable and personal icons to build upon political arguments.

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Watkins emphasizes this point to greater effect later in the clip, applying cross cutting editing techniques in order to challenge the line between the personal and political by using two conflicting media aesthetics simultaneously. During these moments, we are first presented with the quick and rapid editing of violent images from Berlin during a street riot. These images are haphazard; the camera constantly jolts and pans with little coherent accuracy as the images of scattered physical violence, police uniforms, pointed guns, and barbed wire combine tonally to form an Eisensteinian montage of ‘intellectual editing’ that suggests social and political unrest via the clashing of disjointed images of signified brutality and the amplified noises of mass discontent. This is then edited against the calmer streets of Britain, in which a static and sturdy camera captures casually spoken interview subjects who speak directly to its lens; centre framed, they voice dismissive comments about the potential prospects of war. One interviewee confidently speaks out, “No, there won’t be a war… I’m quite convinced of that.” The interviews conducted in Britain are constructed within the montage to appear naïve, especially when cut directly against the violent consequences of war already beginning to surface within a separate geographical location. The camera styles clash for each escalating shot to aesthetically critique its onscreen predecessor. Watkins’s use of montage and cross cutting builds towards a political argument that blurs the line between reality and fiction, between the political and personal. The viewer is left unaware of the status these images and sounds hold; their relationship to reality is ambiguous. Are these images of riots found footage, or enactments? Are these interviews scripted, or real? The documentary style of the film leaves the viewer in a constant state of spatio-temporal imbalance since the film’s warning against the unthinkable prospects of nuclear war are reflected alongside images that appear to be situated within the viewer’s personal reality. The clip’s argument against nuclear war is successful because both its style and editing are constructed in such a way as to force the viewer to reflect upon their own reality, while at the same time accepting nuclear war as a valid and plausible element of that reality.

Looking again at the style and filmic rhythm of the Berlin riot scene, it becomes clear that, in many ways, the tools with which Watkins builds his arguments are signatures of the ‘monoform’, which he himself later critiques as “the densely packed and rapidly edited barrage of images and sounds, the ‘seamless’ yet fragmented modular structure which we all know so well.” (Watkins, 2003) On the surface, Watkins’s film appears to reflect the mannerisms of a relatively conventional documentary, yet The War Game works to subtly manipulate the ‘monoform’ in a range of creative ways, including at times, drawing attention to its own form in order to critique it. During the evacuee scene, one begrimed resident is told by uniformed officers that he will be forced to take eight people into his home. The man exclaims, “bloody hell!”. At this point, the once conventional medium close-up freezes to a static image; the ultra-realist techniques of documentary filmmaking rhythmically shift into the formalist and experimental aesthetic of a freeze frame. This self-inflicted crack within the film’s surface exposes the constructed framing within the frozen shot. We now see that this individual frame is not sporadic or happenstance at all, but a framed OTS shot that captures the continuity of the presupposed gaze from the resident to the officer; a shot that would not look out of place in a Hollywood movie.

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Using the freeze frame, Watkins exposes the conventional techniques of his own film with the aim of challenging the aesthetic ideology on which it has been built. However, this scene does more, using what is onscreen to challenge its aesthetic, but also using what is absent. The conventional ‘monoform’ techniques found in this freeze frame would be fulfilled within a shot-reverse-shot pattern, or at the very least by providing an angle in which we see the uniformed officer’s face. Yet, in this scene, as well as on many other occasions throughout the film, this expectation is never provided. The audience is constantly held back from certain visual cues. In the short section of the clip involving a ration card, we only ever see the card itself being held as an off-screen officer explains its use. This is because the events of the film are irrelevant as single events, but are instead symbolic as microcosms of social discontent. Watkins uses the subtle dismembering of the ‘monoform’ to draw our attention to each scene as socially symbolic, rather than establishing any one character within the scene itself. Within the freeze-framed image, the man forced to home eight people becomes a filmic proxy for the viewer, who, convinced by the scene, knows they may also have to home eight people in the very real event of nuclear war.

In outlining Cahiers du Cinéma’s seven categories of cinematic ideology, Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni mark category ‘e’ as, “throw(ing) up obstacles in the way of the ideology, causing it to swerve and get off course. The cinematic framework lets us see it, but also shows it up and denounces it.” (Comolli & Narboni, 1969, p.33) Watkins’s subtle use of unconventional filmmaking techniques inside the ‘monoform’ structure is used in The War Game for this exact reason; to conduct, as Comolli and Narboni state, “An internal criticism … which cracks the film apart at the seams … an internal tension which is simply not there in an ideologically innocuous film.” (Comolli & Narboni, 1969, p.33) This point is made clearer using map graphics and on-screen quotes, which disrupt the film’s hand-held rhythm with static words and images to expose the “constant monolinear direction forward” found within the ideology of the ‘monoform’. (Watkins, 2003) These graphics seem to pause the energy of the film, allowing for moments of deliberation and reflection. With this, the film’s visual enactments are compressed into signified educational elements that give contemplated scientific and methodical grounding to their otherwise unstructured chaos, thus halting the insistent speed of the ‘monoform’, and exposing its inherent manufactured succinctness.

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Using its status as a category ‘e’ film, we can begin to study The War Game not as a conventional documentary, but as a rich display of subversive and destabilising forms against the prevailing ‘monoform’, which the film takes advantage of in order to expose its dominating traits. Watkins shapes the film to reflect upon the ideology of the ‘monoform’, deploying freeze frames, on-screen graphics, and the blending of conflicting filmic styles to both shock and educate the viewer simultaneously, persuading them of its political message, while concurrently attempting to formulate a unique and challenging filmic language.

Comolli, J,L, Narboni, P. (1969) ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, Cahiers du Cinéma October-November 1969, Nos 216, 212, reprinted in Screen, Volume 12, Issue 1.

Watkins, P. (2003) ‘Role of American MAVM, Hollywood and the Monoform’, Media Statement, Available at: http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/hollywood.htm (Date accessed: 09/02/17).

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. beetleypete says:

    The War Game was simply amazing back then. And it still is.
    Power and imagery rarely surpassed in modern film-making. Hard to watch at times, but necessary viewing, for so many reasons.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Ray/Man says:

    Remember seeing Watkin’s work in the sixties. Powerful. Munch and the Battle of Culloden…

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