The Collapse of Watkins' Nuclear War Film

By Nolley, Ken | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 1983 | Go to article overview

The Collapse of Watkins' Nuclear War Film


Nolley, Ken, Literature/Film Quarterly


The career of Peter Watkins continues to be as troubled and as troubling as it is brilliant. Although he has completed nine films professionally, by Watkins' own account he has had twelve projects rejected or collapsed after the investment of various amounts of time and research, including several that went far enough to result in completed scripts. The films he has completed often suffered major distribution problems, as Joseph Gomez points out in his study of Watkins' work.1 The collapse of his most recent project, a British nuclear war film that was to have been co-sponsored by Central Television and an independent grass roots organization called the Peace Film Fund, as well as Watkins' reaction to that collapse must be understood in the context of what has now come to be for him a distressingly familiar pattern.

The Nuclear War Film had its beginning in December of 1981, shortly after the Swedish Film Institute had announced that it would not be able to fund the shooting of Watkins' film on August Strindberg, the script of which he had been developing for two and one half years. Frank Allaun, a Labour M.P., wrote to Watkins in Stockholm to inquire whether Watkins would be interested in making an updated version of The War Game. Watkins replied in the affirmative and went to England early in 1982 to try to line up funding.

That funding, as it turned out, was to come from two sources. A general public appeal headed by Frank Allaun and Lord Jenkins was organized to raise £ 20,000. On the other hand, Central Television agreed to put in £ 100,000, and perhaps more.2 The proposed division of funds was unusual, perhaps unique in the cinema: the Peace Film Fund was to be used in front of the camera, providing the necessary financial backing to make possible a series of what came to be called "events" staged in various cities around the country by volunteers recruited for the film; the Central money was to be spent on behind-the-camera costs, first researching and then filming those "events." The film, when edited, would be a record of those publicly staged "events."

There was, of course, no way to know how much public support would be forthcoming and how much it would count for. By most accounts, initial hopes for the film were guarded and modest, perhaps involving events in ten cities. Central hired production staff beginning in early March and by midMarch Watkins hit the road on a series of exploratory meetings to gauge the level of public support. The recently revitalized anti-nuclear movement obviously still retains a great respect for the man who made The War Game; the public response at the meetings was gratifyingly strong.

Watkins' first schedule of meetings took him to more than twenty cities and before that round of meetings concluded in mid-April, perhaps as soon as April first, the staff on the film was thinking of scheduling events in perhaps twenty cities, not merely ten. A second round of meetings, to begin at the end of April, was planned and a detailed schedule was developed for a third round of meetings in June and July, as well as for filming, which was to begin at the end of July.

As the project developed, Watkins thought of the new film as much more than merely an updated version of The War Game. This film was meant to be a national film, not one centered in Kent as the previous film had been. It was to include a major treatment of the experiences of one family, an idea only suggested in The War Game by the couple with the two small boys. Finally, Watkins planned to confront head-on the arbitrary and authoritarian nature of the British pre-strike civil defense plan, spending approximately half of the film on that topic. The second round of meetings concentrated on that area particularly as the research team uncovered information and Watkins' ideas for sequences in various cities began to take shape.

The second round of meetings continued to be very successful with large, enthusiastic crowds, sizable' numbers of which volunteered to help stage the events in each area. …

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