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Yesterday’s Apocalypse?

Martin Padget takes a tour of the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona.

One of the more vivid memories of my youth during the early 1980s involves viewing Peter Watkins’ powerful docudrama The War Game, which portrays the impact of a limited thermonuclear attack on south-eastern England. Made for the BBC in 1965, the film was not broadcast until twenty years later because of fears that its portrayal of the catastrophic effect of a nuclear attack was too horrifying and disturbing for the British public. As was often the case during the long period in which the BBC failed to broadcast the film, the screening at which I was present had been organised by the local branch of CND in my English hometown.

The War Game, which was released in cinemas after being dropped from the BBC’s schedule, received a mixed critical reception in 1965. The Daily Mirror declared that the decision to ban the film was correct: ‘It reproduces with sickening realism charred limbs, crushed faces and eyes melting in their sockets. This … could not have been borne by the millions of viewers sitting at home.’ A correspondent for the Daily Sketch stated that while Watkins had created a ‘brilliant’ and ‘brutal’ documentary, it was also an ‘irresponsible’ film insofar as it ‘excluded hope’ of recovery from the devastating effects of nuclear warfare. The Daily Worker adopted a different viewpoint: ‘No wonder the Establishment wants to stop the film being widely shown. If several million people saw it, the campaign for the banning of nuclear weapons would receive an enormous impetus.’

It is hardly surprising that Watkins so feared the outbreak of nuclear conflict in the early 1960s. Born in England in 1935, he was a child when nuclear bombs were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945…