Monday, April 16, 2007

Iceberg Arena: BBC Brings You Continued Coverage of the Apocalypse

More so than any other Cold War country, Britain’s documentary filmmakers dedicated themselves to making viewers curl up into a ball and freeze into a catatonic terror at the thought of impending nuclear war. The pessimism was not BBC policy, but rather, the memorable aftermath of two personal projects made at opposite ends of the era. In 1965, controversial director Peter Watkins made the 50 minute “The War Game.” In 1984 this work was echoed by Mick Jackson’s feature length “Threads.”

Though “The War Game” won the 1965 Academy Award for best documentary the BBC declared that it was “…too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” and refused to air the film. A limited theater run gave it a fanatical following amongst disarmament proponents but it didn’t air on BBC until 1985, effectively after “Threads.” Jackson’s film was clearly informed by Watkins’ work and both take a detached docudrama approach to the material that is all the more powerful for its deadpan realism and factual tone. “Threads” got a much better distribution thanks to Ted Turner, who personally secured a theatrical release in the US.

In “The War Game” Peter Watkins’ approaches the idea of an apocalyptic nuclear war as if it was just another documentary subject to be captured as best as a small team of reporters could. Set primarily in Rochester, Watkins’ tracks the escalating military friction and emergency preparations up until the moment of the bomb dropping with a realism tempered by a touch of wit and cynicism (also evident in the ironic film title). Real life pedestrians are interviewed by the crew about their stance towards and awareness of nuclear war, revealing a naivety and optimism that would be funny if it wasn’t so disturbing.

When the bomb falls, the effects of the initial shockwave are shown vaporizing everything in the outer blast radius. Horrifying final moments are registered in searing freeze-frames, the first of many reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documentary continues for weeks after the event, depicting the slow death of radiation sickness, the brutal marshal law government that tries to deal with the starving, dying masses (the BBC particularly objected to scenes of British officers dispatching mercy executions to third degree burn victims) and the long term collapse of society.

Keeping the film ever grounded in the present, and disallowing any re-appropriation as sci-fi escapism, is a deadpan narration that describes statistics, scientific research and the mass-distributed British pamphlets for such a disaster. Simple intertitle text is also used to provide a chilling factual account. Without lampooning the government for the sake of humor, the film communicates the pathetic inadequacy of the civil defense preparations and procedures (i.e. duck and cover).

Not completely able to suppress the human interest angle (as befitting a TV docudrama), Watkins’ continues to interview victims, now switching to fictional characters living in the devastating aftermath. Generally tasteful, these vignettes highlight the hopelessness, depression and suffering of the survivors. Unwilling to downplay or flinch from the darkest depths of his medically-informed premise, Watkins’ presents the inevitable images of corpses, bleeding children, burned flesh, hairless scalps, lost limbs and radiation-induced vomiting. He drives home the senselessness and unfathomable pain wrought by nuclear holocaust.

By 1984, our scientific understanding of nuclear war had greatly improved, but the general public’s awareness was still only nebulous. Mick Jackson’s adopted the same approach as Watkins, leaning on documentary realism to deliver his effect. Also similar to Watkins, but with greater rigor, Jackson gathered a team of experts (including Carl Sagan) from every relevant field and pooled their knowledge and research. The main difference is that Jackson treats a highly specific set of protagonists, creating a more traditionally character-driven narrative.

The story takes place in Sheffield and centers on a young couple: working-class Jimmy Kemp and middle-class Ruth Beckett. Jimmy and Ruth are very average, struggling with their own problems like money and an unplanned pregnancy. Caught in their own lives and oblivious to international politics, they pay almost no attention to the escalating war between the US and Soviets taking place in Iran. We follow the flawed, but essential good-natured, couple in a state of rising tension for the first half of the film, overhearing bits and pieces of news on the radio and TV. An ancillary subplot involves the mayor’s noble efforts to put together a decently well-equipped local government that could survive a nuclear blast.

When the bombs finally do drop widespread chaos prevails. The shockwave sends many into a frantic panic and seems to prepare the viewer for the forthcoming disaster, but it is the incineration wave that will remain in audience’s minds long after the film. An indelible montage shows shattering glass, exploding buildings, vaporized humans caught mid-scream and the relatively harmless, but instantly terrifying, shot of milk bottles melted by the storm of heat and fire.

No intellectual knowledge of the potential aftermath can match the emotional impact of the second half of the film. Rescue, fire-fighting and medical aid is almost completely impossible. The ineffectuality of even worst-case scenario plans is made evident by the provisional government’s desperate, but useless, attempts to coordinate provisions and maintain control while cut-off from the surface in their underground shelter. High-strung and aware of the loss of their families, the under-trained officials wait to be dug out.

More graphic and unremitting than even Peter Watkins could be, Jackson shows that the merciless death toll does not even spare his main characters. More shocking yet, he highlights the mind-numbing anonymity of the death and suffering by declining to include dramatic death scenes. Some of the characters developed up to this point simply disappear; the exact nature of their untimely demise unknown.

We are shown radiation sickness and the human indignities of cripples condemned because they are beyond treatment or unable to provide labor. Each new scene of horror is separated by a period of black silence.

Humans die. Animals die. Plants die. Cold statistics tell us that fuel will be in too short of supply to cremate the bodies or to power bulldozers. Manpower, weighed in calories, will be too scarce to dig mass graves. As millions of bodies lay unburied, cholera, typhoid and other diseases reach epidemic levels. The crops yield reduced harvests inadequate to feed the survivors and distribution is unreliable at best. Previous crops will not have the benefit of fueled machinery or fertilizers.

[SPOILERS] (and one of cinema’s most depressing moments)

As time begins to pass more rapidly, intertitles give us statistics on the effects of radiation on pregnant women. Ruth is seen giving birth to a child alone in a barn, as a chained dog barks at her. Mentally and emotionally stunted, both by birth defects and the regressed society, the girl grows up never knowing the advanced comforts and easy survival of her parent’s generation. She blankly accepts her mother’s death and begins a nomadic existence of animal survival.

In the films harrowing, depressing coda, the child (now a little over ten) and two other boys steal a few scraps of bread. One boy is gunned down while fleeing. The other boy inarticulately demands the girl’s portion, beats her to seize it and rapes her before moving on. A few months pass and the girl crawls her way into the remains of a hospital where no one offers help or comfort. She gives premature birth to a still-born fetus. The film ends on a freeze frame just before she can scream at the sight of the bloody mass.


Both films are truly effective, and made significant impacts on those who saw them during the Cold War. Both films deny the popular adage that “life goes on” and drive home the fact that nuclear war spells the end of civilization. Many critics commented that such films should be required viewing for politicians and military officials, but the consistent government response was to limit their screening in the hopes of keeping the public relatively calm and unaware. This systematic denial of the risks and dangers present in international conflict is a secondary theme that remains relevant today.

“The War Game” and “Threads” are both films that deserve attention and display a professionalism and credibility that make them just as watchable today, if not quite as topical. I have to deem “Threads” the better film due to its raw emotional power and more exacting research, but it owes much of its success from borrowing wisely out of “The War Game.” In my opinion, Peter Watkins would go on to puts his passionate polemics to best use in “Punishment Park” (1971) in which conservatives round up hippies and protestors to be hunted in military exercises.

Winner: “Threads”

Although let us keep in mind the AI-imparted wisdom from the similarly titled “Wargames” (1983): “A strange game [Global Thermonuclear War]. The only winning move is not to play.”


Mad Dog said...

Jesus CHRIST that's depressing. For another view of how nuclear war can shape a society, I recommend you check out Barefoot Gen. It's fairly disturbing in its portrayal, as well, but not nearly to the degree shown here.

FilmWalrus said...

They are both very depressing films. I advise you to watch "Threads" for yourself, because only experiencing it really communicates the full power.

I'm definitely excited to see "Barefoot Gen" which my prof showed clips of in Contemporary East Asian Cinema class and I've seen other clips online.

Meanwhile, you should also look into "Testament" (1983) which is a very decent American version of the same topic. The US treatment is too sentimental (the ending especially) to really work and has a deliciously bad performance by Kevin Costner in a bit part. On the upside, it does have a devastatingly perfect scene involving a mother-daughter 'sex talk' with a gentle sadness worth the admission (adjusting for inflation).