Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Gaming the System: Peter Watkins' the Gladiators and Punishment Park

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Gaming the System: Peter Watkins' the Gladiators and Punishment Park

Article excerpt

The Gladiators (Peter Watkins, Sweden, 1969). Original title Gladiatorerna. New Yorker Video/Project X. NTSC region 1. 1 . 66 : 1 pillarboxed anamorphic. us $29.95

Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, USA, 1971). Eureka Video. PAL region 2. 1 . 33 : 1 anamorphic. £ 19.98

'The sound you are listening to is that of the international ICARUS system. This sound represents the pressure applied by the system to ensure that we all play the game as hard as we can.' The opening lines of Peter Watkins' remarkable The Gladiators make clear that it is no ordinary narrative feature, but rather a complex political allegory designed to have applicability to all in the modern world who find themselves caught within 'the system' and forced to play its game as hard as they can, yet with no conceivable chance of actually winning in the end. ICARUS stands for Ideological Correction and Rapid Unification System - a giant computer system controlling the International Peace Games (a gathering of the world's military powers in which the need for war and destruction has been sublimated into limited combat scenarios). These are the misnamed Peace Games, in which troops from different sides compete to the death, all the time watched not only by their military superiors but by a global audience which has the coverage beamed live onto television sets as entertainment and perhaps, also, as a warning of the need always to play within 'the system' and to conform. We follow the 256th Peace Game, held in supposedly neutral Stockholm, in which an Allied team (made up of members from Britain, the US, West Germany and South Vietnam) compete against a corresponding one from Red China, the objective being to be the first to reach the Control Room where ICARUS, and hence the source of power in this global society, resides.

In 1968, when the film was shot, Watkins was most famous as the director of The War Game, a powerful Oscar-winning documentary construction of the horrors that would happen should a nuclear bomb fall on Kent, England. Made for BBC TV in 1965, the film was controversially banned by the BBC from television screens around the world for twenty years, receiving only a limited cinema release during this period via the British Film Institute. His first feature film, Privilege (UK 1967), received a hostile reception in Britain, a reaction which Watkins believed was a political consequence of his having challenged the British Establishment and the Cold War system with The War Game, and so in 1968 he seized the opportunity to quit Britain for a self-imposed international exile (which continues to this day). This followed an offer from the Stockholm-based Sandrews production company, in the wake of all the publicity The War Game had generated, to finance any film he cared to make.

Watkins' already-existing Gladiators draft script (which had been co-written with Nicholas Gosling in the UK) was adapted for a Swedish context and shot in the late summer and early winter of 1968 in two main locations - a deserted brick factory and an abandoned manor house, just outside Stockholm. This, however, was no local Scandinavian production. In keeping with the subject matter, Watkins employed an international cast, including professional and non-professional actors from the range of countries represented in the film, alongside the Polish-born cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and the Canadian- born art director William Brodie, who had worked with him on Privilege. Looking back, Watkins has bemoaned the obstacles he faced in shooting The Gladiators, not least the cumbersome 35mm feature film cameras of the period, which restricted his preferred and characteristic hand-held faux-newsreel style (for which he typically deployed lighter-weight, more portable 16mm equipment to give audiences the impression that they were watching a documentary film rather than a conventional dramatic narrative).

In The Gladiators, despite some sequences being shot hand-held, notably those depicting combat, Watkins adapted the restrictions of 35mm shooting to his advantage by using, for most of the film, highly static set-ups with little or no camera movement. …

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