Curl up with a film about nuclear holocaust for a fun Friday night viewing, recommends Judge Jesse Ataide.
War is hell. Literally.
A strong case can be made that Peter Watkins deserves the title "greatest filmmaker you've never heard of." Which is ironic, considering that the topics and themes Watkins has most consistently explored throughout his career—the devastation of war, political dissonance and individual subjectivity—are surely ones that would strike a deep chord in contemporary America and all over the world. This makes the relatively recent release of several of Watkins's films on DVD, including Punishment Park, The Gladiators and Edvard Munch all the more timely. And now with the release of the Oscar-winning The War Game, surely Watkins's most famous film, and Culledon, a penetrating dissection of war, there is no excuse for keeping this great cinematic visionary in a peripheral spot on the cinematic map.
Kenneth Tynan, upon seeing The War Game at a special screening meant to justify the complete suppression the film, declared that "it may be the most important film ever made," and while watching it, it's hard to disagree. A quasi-documentary that utilizes readily available information on nuclear attacks to create a film depicting the hypothetical—and quite likely—effect nuclear warfare would have had on Great Britain in the mid 1960s, it simply boggles the mind that this bleak, depressing hour-long film was originally funded by the BBC with the intention of broadcasting it on national television (indeed, the heads of the BBC thought they were going to be receiving something quite different). The resulting film is a depiction of human suffering presented with an unwavering intensity that makes it nearly unbearable to experience, and the emotional impact the film makes cannot be stressed enough—I watched most of the film through tear-blurred eyes. One wishes that with our delusions of increasing sophistication as a species would render this little more than an antiquated time capsule of Cold War paranoia, but what makes it all the more terrifying is the realization that nothing has really changed—the likeliness of massive nuclear holocaust is just as much of a reality today as it was in the mid-1960s. The word "unforgettable" is bandied about often in film criticism; this is the rare film that truly deserves the title.
On the other hand, films that deal directly with combat during war almost always fail to interest me in any way—the obsession with grand and collective exploits are usually too impersonal and/or simplistic for my tastes. But I can't dismiss Culloden in the same offhand manner—for even if it does focus on the gritty and bloody reality of hand-to-hand combat, it also goes out of its way to make sure the viewer is aware of what is at stake on a personal level for every individual involved. Meticulously recreating the disastrous Battle of Culloden of 1746 where the English army finished off the Scottish resistance to its imperial rule, it is also shot a quasi-documentary style, with an off-camera narrator (played by Peter Watkins himself) asking various participants personal questions regarding their age, economic background and family situation, all the while informing the viewer of the factors involved in bringing the individual to this particular tragic moment in time. This confronts the viewer with the reality that all grand, overarching narratives—the kind that we read as children in history books—are really the fusion of countless tiny, intimate, personal narratives, in this case one saturated with injustice, heartbreak, loss and more often than not, death itself. The film was made with the specific intentions to make strong parallels with the Vietnam War, but, well, let's just say that the film feels just as relevant as ever, and leave it at that.
The War Game is a good example of the type of films nearly impossible to rate on a technical scale, for there are many moment when the damaged image quality—with readily apparent scratches, nicks and other blemishes—though this is most certainly a very calculated aesthetic decision on Watkins's part. Still, everything considered, New Yorker's presentation of The War Game is about as good as it can be. The print for Culloden, on the other hand, is truly outstanding—with a rich contrast in the black and white image with very few defects noticeable in the image. The audio tracks for both films are also very good, with little distortion.
Two commentary tracks, one for each film, comprise the DVD's main extras. For The War Game, Patrick Murphy provides a very thoughtful, methodical analysis of the film as it unfolds, managing to weave seamlessly together scene-specific interpretations as well as general observations about Watkins's style and personal history. While it's very dense, it manages never to become dull or dry. Dr. John Cook takes a much more anecdotal approach to his commentary for Culloden and while it may lack the specificity of Murphy's commentary, but it's also thoroughly engaging as well as enlightening. The only other extra is a 12 page booklet featuring an informative article by Murphy, which offers an insightful look into the development of Watkins from a BBC protégé to a revered experimental filmmaker, and how the major impact both The War Game and Culloden had on the trajectory of his filmmaking career.
Roger Ebert has made the comment that "they should string up bed sheets between trees and show The War Game in every public park." Though he wrote those words at the close of his 1967 review of Watkins's film, it's just as valid a statement today as it was the day it was written. And while they're at it, why not show Culloden as well?
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