Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Gladiators (dir. Peter Watkins, 1969)

The Gladiators is a film way ahead of its time, a mockumentary about a reality TV show in which contestants are forced to kill each other made in 1969.

You might not have seen The Gladiators - it's a bit hard to get hold of. I had to buy it on DVD from France (through, and it only has French subtitles. Since the film is in English, French, Swedish, Cantonese and German, this meant listening to German (which I can read, but sometimes struggle to follow when spoken) and Swedish (which I don't speak, but which is similar enough to German that I recognise bits and pieces of it) while trying to read the lines in French. The subtitles are foreign language subtitles only, not subtitles for the hard of hearing, so the French parts weren't subtitled - I speak French, but like German, I find it much easier to follow written down than spoken aloud, so that was a challenge too. The easiest parts, other than the English, were the Cantonese sections, as I could just ignore the spoken language and read the French!

Anyway, if you can speak French, the film is well worth getting hold of, because it's very good. Sometimes called The Peace Game in reference to Watkins' famous earlier film The War Game, it was made in the same year as the film version of Oh! What a Lovely War and shares distinct conceptual similarities, chiefly the idea that generals treat war like a game, a living version of Risk. Here, the United Nations (referring to themselves as the 'Allies') pit a team of conscripted soldiers against a team drawn from the major Communist countries of the time, led by China, for a reality TV show (filmed in Sweden, which is neutral). They are told to play a war game with live ammunition, the object of which is to reach the control room - except no one is expected ever to actually reach the control room and the one participant who does is left rather bewildered when he gets there.

The film draws overt attention to the gladiator parallel in the opening segment, in which we are reminded that these contests are 'based on the gladiatorial Games of ancient Rome,' though there are some important differences between the two. Roman gladiatorial Games were focused on the show, on pitting fighters with differing weapons or skills against each other or against various animals to produce an entertaining spectacle. Gladiators might gain a certain celebrity, but ultimately they were slaves or people desperate (or bloodthirsty) enough voluntarily to fight as a gladiator, so the audience would not see themselves in these people, whereas the 'soldiers' in the Peace Games are young men conscripted from the general population and chosen to represent their home countries.

The justification for the Peace Games is similar to the sort of argument often put forward for the value of international sporting events, that by directing humanity's natural aggression and rivalry into a sport (in this case, a blood sport) war will be avoided. In fact, the film suggests, the true purpose of the Games is rather more sinister. The very first image of the film is written text (in English, French and Swedish) with a constant, irritating beeping in the background. This, we are told, is the ICARUS system, designed subliminally to force everyone to play the game as hard as possible. In other words, it's a system specifically designed to force people to 'fly too close to the sun,' to do more with the equipment they're given that said equipment is capable of, and therefore to bring about their own destruction. It's a rather brilliantly evil plan, really.

Although there are references made to the Peace Games being the most popular show on television in the Western world (and to sponsors who will be angry if the start of the programme is delayed, a concern that baffles and amuses the Chinese general) because this film was made in 1969, there is not nearly as much emphasis on the wider television audience here as there is in later films like The Hunger Games. More recent productions tend to emphasise the culpability of the audience in perpetuating monstrosities like these Games, drawing parallels with the voyeuristic nature of some reality television. However, here, the audience are victims almost as much as the soldiers are, placated with the ever-popular 'bread and circuses' by 'the System' and led to believe that by watching their loved ones die on live television they are somehow helping to maintain world peace.

There is much more emphasis throughout the film on the generals, who are repeatedly shown watching and commenting on the Games. The relationship between the rival generals is very cordial, even if they snark each other at times, and they form a united front dedicated to maintaining order below. The generals eat, they are amused by the proceedings, occasionally they even fall asleep. This is their Game and they are in charge - and despite the presence of the unseen television audience, they are the true audience of these Games, for whom they're really played.

In some ways, this is a film of its time. French student B-3's personal fight against 'the System' feels very 1960s. The representation of black soldiers occasionally leaves a bit to be desired (one of them seems confused as to why he's there) though there are black generals who are just as cold and capable as the others. There is only one female soldier. She is part of the communist team (so there's no suggestion that the Western allies have recruited a woman) and her presence is necessary to allow the film to introduce a love story without having to venture into non-heterosexual territory, rather than a statement about feminism or representation of women in combat.

Generally speaking, though, the exploration of what would, many years later, become known as reality television and the use of the mockumentary format (carried over from The War Game) puts The Gladiators far ahead of its time in other ways. It's both thought-provoking and cleverly filmed; the violent climax is presented as a series of black and white stills that are somehow more disturbing than moving images, possibly due to their resemblance to real wartime photographs. (I wonder if Gary Ross has seen it, as there's a certain similarity with the way he uses close-up hand-held camerawork to depict violence in The Hunger Games). Well worth a look if you can get hold of it The War Game.
and definitely recommended for fans of

Peter Watkins talks about his aims with this film, and its availability on DVD, at his own website.


  1. Sounds very interesting! And I can imagine it must have been confusing to watch with the language mixup...

    1. It was all the Swedish with French subtitles that really threw me!

  2. Indeed, Watkins was a film maker far ahead of his time. It is unfortunate that this seemed to work against him as he never received the public acclaim his work deserves. (Not an unusual fate for those artists who specialize in documentaries.)

    I first saw The War Game when I was a freshman in high school and it made a BIG impression on me.

    Thanks for reminding us about this other great Watkins film.

    Oh ... And this film does seem to be available on DVD here in the US, but in limited quantities. They claim both English and French subtitles.

    1. That's good - the English-subtitled version must be available from the US but not the UK for some reason (if I'd realised, I'd have ordered it from the US! But luckily I can speak French anyway)

  3. I've never heard of this one, Juliette.

    1. I found it on a Wikipedia list of films from the 1960s I think, when I was lecturing on film last year, and dug it out because I was writing a paper on the hunger games. It's very good, well worth a look.

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