Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Winds of War

THE WAR GAME (1966)
PROTECT AND SURVIVE (1976)
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS (1986)

The Protect and Survive campaign was a very naive attempt at preparing UK citizens in the event of nuclear attack.

WHEN the Protect and Survive leaflets were released in 1980, its contents shocked many people, and added to the air of nuclear paranoia. Echoing civil defence pamphlets which evolved from The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids (1938), you can only wonder what degree of additional chaos would have been created if the accompanying film series (actually made in 1976) was ever aired in anger, twenty short films which walk the viewer through every stage of a nuclear crisis. These shorts - fatalistically narrated by Patrick Allen - detailed the same instructions as the leaflets, using voice-over narration, kitsch animation, and an unsettling closing electronic musical note. One remembers Allen’s similar tone on remixes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, which also imposed impending doom: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Don’t be alarmed.”

The films have left an uneasy yet fascinating mark. Their documentation of everything from improvising toilet facilities to name-tagging dead family members, moves unnervingly in tone from portentous to matter-of-fact. Each of the shorts end with the animated caption ‘Protect and Survive’ wrapping around the family unit, the same symbol used earlier to represent the inner refuge. The signal is clear - follow our instructions and things might be all right. In reality, all this public information was founded in people staying in their own homes; this would not only maximise the death rate - both from the blast and the fallout - but also prevent the spread of disease by not having corpses strewn in the highways and countryside. Less people, less hassle.

“Looks like there is going to be a war dear.” The nuclear disintegration of Jim and Hilda is often unbearable in WHEN THE WIND BLOWS.

Based on Raymond Briggs' graphic novel of the same name, WHEN THE WIND BLOWS it is an animated film about a nuclear attack from the viewpoint of Jim and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft), a retired couple still mired in memories of World War II. The Bloggs live in rural Sussex, and exhibit considerable confusion regarding the nature and seriousness of their situation; as Hilda says, “Well, if the worst comes to worse, we'll just have to roll up our sleeves, tighten our belts, and put on our tin hats 'til it's VE day again.” Jim's nostalgic outlook also remains, “You get terrific heat in these bombs.”

Rather than stretch this fable out to a global scale, all the essential points are made by the isolated couple in their country cottage, aided by a realistic style of animation - a technique seldom used since Max Fleischer - by building small table-tops and placing cels between the set and the camera. Jim places his faith in the Protect and Survive leaflets, though even he seems puzzled by the contradictions he finds, and the inane activities they suggest. Unsurprisingly, the movie shows more destruction than the book, highlighted by a sepia-toned sequence showing the disintegration of cars, trains, houses and even animals.

THE WAR GAME quickly became a cause célèbre for the CND.

Whereas WHEN THE WIND BLOWS hammers at the heart, THE WAR GAME is a sledgehammer blow to the skull. Written, directed, and produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC's WEDNESDAY PLAY series, THE WAR GAME was not transmitted until 1985, with the corporation publicly stating that “the effect of the film has been judged to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” In fifty black and white minutes, THE WAR GAME depicts the prelude to and the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack. Continuing the experiments in fiction and documentary techniques which had begun with his earlier CULLODEN (1964), Watkins blends several different strands: contemporary vox pops, in which passers-by are interviewed about their knowledge of nuclear war issues; optimistic commentary from public figures that clashes with the images; and fictional interviews with key figures as the war unfolds.

The film's enduring power thus derives from a variety of sources, not least its cool articulation of the momentary images - a child's eyes burned by a distant air-burst, as the film itself goes into negative; a bucketful of wedding rings collected as a register of the dead; and a derelict building which has become an impromptu furnace for the incineration of bodies too numerous to bury. At a structural level THE WAR GAME achieves its overall effect through both its mixture and its separation of the documentary and the fiction. It does not, for example, offer the purely dramatic spectacle of later apocalyptic entries such as the American THE DAY AFTER (1983) or THREADS (1984), with their traditional characters and plot.