Teaching The War Game

2 Aug

wargameThe War Game (dir: Peter Watkins, 1965): Arguably the greatest piece of English-language cinema dealing with nuclear war.* Still potent after all these years? More importantly, still potent for those who did not live under the shadow of the Cold War nuclear threat, those for whom the terror of nuclear warfare is but an abstract notion seen in Hollywood films?

Like many others, I find The War Game a fascinating piece of work. The stark, black and white horror of the survivors juxtaposed with the studio-bound assuredness of confident authority figures. The descent into lawless chaos, society only held together by the most brutal of methods.

As part of recently teaching a summer school for 17-18 year olds, I had the opportunity to create a tutorial that assessed and examined The War Game. I was particularly interested in how people of that age group, those born after the end of the Cold War, would react to the film, how they would interpret it, and whether or not they saw it as a curiosity of the past or as a text with enduring significance.

The instructions given to the students were as follows (they were given link to watch the film prior to class):

Written and directed by Peter Watkins, The War Game was intended to be shown by the BBC to mark the twentieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. It was considered “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” and did not appear on TV until 1985. After watching the film you should then read the following articles:

James Chapman, ‘The BBC and the Censorship of The War Game (1965),’ Journal of Contemporary History, 41:1 (Jan., 2006), 75-94

Tony Shaw, ‘The BBC, the State and Cold War Culture: The Case of Television’s The War Game (1965),’ English Historical Review, Vol.CXXI, No.494, 1351-1384

Class activity

Part 1) Think about the two readings on The War Game that you have been assigned. Consider the argument of both articles. Which do you find more convincing? In what ways are the two articles looking at the same subject different? What does this say about the way we construct history in general? The ways in which we use and interpret evidence? History as a contested and ever-changing field of endeavour?

Part 2) How useful do you think The War Game is as a historical document? What does it tell us about nuclear weapons and the Cold War? Do you think not screening the film in 1965 was the correct decision? Write a short paragraph on your understandings of the film and your thoughts about it.

Now, aside from the obvious issues concerned with getting the buy-in of a group of teenagers having to sit inside on a sunny summers day and discuss nuclear war with a beardy academic type, the results of this were pretty thought-provoking.

The_War_GameI had not actually figured that there would be so much enthusiasm for the piece. The vast majority expressed genuine shock upon first watching the film. The general opinion was that they had not expected a black and white docudrama from the 1960s to be so shocking and powerful. A handful noted that they found it genuinely hard to watch, something that is testament to the power of Watkins’ filmmaking.

A straw poll conducted at the start of the class revealed that for all sixteen of the students, nuclear war was not a major day-to-day concern (surprise, surprise!) Yes, some of them reflected on North Korea, Iran, and the issue of nuclear weapons in Scotland. For the majority, however, it was not something that concerned them. It is interesting to note, though, that after watching The War Game, many of them stated it gave them a greater concern for – and awareness of – nuclear issues in contemporary society.

As regards the issue of censorship, this provoked a good debate about the merits of government involvement in broadcasting, particularly as it related to the BBC. The class was split fifty/fifty on the matter. This engagement with the issue was reflected in the final exam for the course, where the question on The War Game was easily the most popular of the Cold War section. And again, many of them argued cogently and enthusiastically for one side or the other.

Exam question: ‘Politically motivated censorship’ or ‘protecting the public interest’? Which statement better describes the BBC’s decision not to screen The War Game in 1965 and why?

Much of this was, from my point of view, informed by which of the pieces of scholarship they had engaged most closely with. Shaw and Chapman come to quite different conclusions using the same evidence, something that a few of the students noted. Regardless, it was refreshing and pleasing to hear students having strong opinions and being able to vocalise same, often in reference to contemporary debates (the legitimacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a prime example.)

Overall, I was genuinely surprised by the reaction. Having never been able to use The War Game in a classroom situation before, it was something of a step into the unknown. It was, however, very gratifying to see the engagement and enthusiasm of students whose lived experience is – in the main – free from the treat of global nuclear war. The controversial nature of the non-screening of the film also allowed debate on wider issues of public access to information, censorship, and the involvement of government in the affairs of the BBC. Again, it was gratifying to see that many students had strong opinions on this, either pro or anti ‘justified’ censorship.

In a classroom context, I would certainly recommend using The War Game as a tool to provoke discussion and debate. It still has the power to shock and move in a way that dry academic texts do not. It still makes people sit up and take notice, despite its age. In the end, that what Peter Watkins wanted back in 1965.


* There is, of course, an argument to be made for other films, although very few – I would suggest – can match The War Game. Dr Strangelove and Threads are perhaps the closest competitors.


5 Responses to “Teaching The War Game

  1. Neil August 2, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I’m surprised that so many of the students engaged with the film. (I thought it was horrifying, made more so that it was obviously based on personal and recent experiences of the shattered post-WWII Europe. _Threads_ didn’t have that “authenticity.”) I was pleased that at least some of them were able to relate the decisions about that film to contemporary events. Sounds like a good seminar session.

    How many students didn’t engage with the debate?

    • malcolmcraig August 2, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

      I too found it quite surprising. My feeling was that it would be a lot harder to get a discussion going than it was.

      The students who didn’t engage with the debate were, unsurprisingly, the students who never engaged in class discussions (shyness, laziness, disinterest, the reasons are many!) There were, however, one or two who obviously had their interested piqued by the topic and who – in a change from the norm – spoke up.


  1. Archaeology of the Future | theatomicage - June 3, 2014

    […] Which is pretty appropriate, given what they are. The remnants of the Cold War. A last line of defence that operated for a day and was then shut down. It got me thinking about teaching the Cold War to students. In particular, it made me reflect on my experiences of teaching The War Game. […]

  2. Teaching The Nuclear Cold War: Weeks 4 and 5 | theatomicage - October 21, 2014

    […] It is regarding this last point that I found student reactions most interesting. When asked if the government was right in suppressing Strath’s findings, a huge majority of both classes came down on the side of government secrecy. Only a few argued that public knowledge would have been beneficial. This I found most remarkable. It will be interesting to see if this is replicated when – this week – we examine the suppression of The War Game. […]

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    […] 1960s. Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that I’m a big fan of using The War Game (Dir: Peter Watkins, 1965) as a teaching tool and discussion point. Things turned out as something […]

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