The Gladiators (Watkins, 1969)

Impressive for its scope and range of critiques concerning highly important global issues, specifically the globalization of entertainment, military agenda’s seen through the lens of popular culture, and the impotency of reactionary forces against right wing hierarchies. In the future, the fictional “Peace Games” pits different countries against each other in a sort of Olympics/Roman Gladiators, a substitute for modern warfare and an attempt to attain international synergy through popular live television (kind of like Surivor, but with guns). Great idea, but Watkins’ film is incredibly disjointed, a jumble of fascinating situations cut together without any clear cut backbone or structure. Allies square off against the Communists, but very little human contact occurs, instead an unseen machine coordinates attacks between the rival forces. Feels like a lack of budget hindered Watkins from going all out, but he does foresee countless modern day complexities between war and entertainment which feel even more important today. Peter Watkins is a visionary, and The Gladiators shows his brilliant use of montage (toward the end he uses still photographs reminiscent of La Jetee). But Watkins’ pseudo-documentary style has been more effective elsewhere, namely his devastating The War Game.

Peter Watkins x 2: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965)

Culloden (1964)
A fascinating psudeo documentary that follows both sides of the battle of Culloden in 1745 between the English army (Protestant) and the rebel Highlanders of Scotland (Catholic). Like The War Game, it mixes cinema-verite style with gripping politcal commentary, showing the process and blunders behind the last land battle on English soil. The battle, which is extrememly one-sided, produces the endgame for the Highland people, led by a indecisive Prince Charles who’s goal is to use the rebels as a way to regain the throw for his Stuart reign.

His abondonment of the rebel followers once his lines start to crumble has ramifications that make the last third of the film extremely hard to watch. The English death squads looting and pillaging villages are something all to familiar in our present political situation.However, Culloden doesn’t have the quite the brutal impact The War Game has, in my mind because it literally takes place in the 1740’s and has the it’s subjects talking as if the camera had been invented years ago, so this relaization takes the viewer somewhat out of the moment. But that’s a minor gripe in yet another example of Peter Watkins’ deft and distrubing in your face style that won’t let you budge from the devastation of a race of people occuring on the screen.

The War Game (1965)
Wow! A brutal, unflinching look at a “what if” situation concerning Russia launching nuclear bombs on England in the late 1960’s. This is the first Peter Watkins psuedo-documentary I have seen and it’s a masterpiece. At only 45 minutes long, the film packs more of a punch than most other supposedly realistic documentaries, showing the human toll of such a catestrophic event, i.e. firestorms, panic, mob looting etc. These images leave an indelilable imprit on your brain, a tragedy of modern times (ironic that it’s completely staged) that one can suppose documents the end of the world.