Before The Hunger Games and Divergent There Was: Peter Watkins' The Gladiators

Dystopia is nothing new.

Forty-three years before The Hunger Games, thirty-two years before Battle Royale, the dystopian premise shared by those two films was first pioneered by this dark, coldly analytical, and deeply political art-house drama by writer/director Peter Watkins. That The Hunger Games has so thoroughly captured our cultural imagination with many of the same themes proves just how eternally-relevant Watkins' social/political commentary is; but that said, the films could not be more different. While the current blockbuster franchise fills the screen with flash and star-power, providing exciting popular entertainment laced with deeper themes, The Gladiators aims to unsettle rather than entertain, keeping an emotional distance that makes the film more of a haunting philosophical thought-experiment than a thriller. So similar in concept, and even similar in some aspects of its philosophy, yet completely antithetical in style and tone, this new pop-cultural context makes for a perfect time to rediscover Watkins' long-overlooked film, which is perhaps made all the more interesting by the contrast.

The basic premise will sound remarkably familiar to fans of either The Hunger Games or Battle Royale: in a bleak near future, war has been replaced by a televised combat game in which teams of drafted soldiers are forced to fight to the death in an arena-like territory that is manipulated for maximum “entertainment value” and propagandistic impact. But unlike in those films, The Gladiators does not invite the viewer to join the “Peace Games” audience in finding action-movie thrills and entertainment value in the games' killing. While it undoubtedly has a premise that suggests “sci-fi-action-thriller,” Peter Watkins adamantly has created no such thing. His style is cold, logical, and objective, forcing the viewer to remain a distant observer of the action rather than a vicarious participant. The characters of the fighters in the game are left deliberately undeveloped, so we cannot form emotional investment or root for anyone; they don't even have names. The combat scenes are deliberately edited in such a way as to defy thriller convention, so they seem exactly like the senseless and pointless moments of violence that they are.

"This competition is boring. Bring out
the gimp!!!
I must emphasize here that none of these things are criticisms; indeed, they are the entire point of the film. We are to remain as objective as Watkins is, so we can observe without emotional investment and see the barbaric truth of the situation. Since the focus is never on the characters, it is instead on the situation as a whole: the “Peace Games” as a cruelly-calculated political machine that acts as a microcosm for military force and global politics at large. The film is all about themes: themes of political power plays, grand-scale manipulations of public thought and opinion, the fallacy of common types of resistance, and wars themselves as means to greater ends of control – on both sides of the conflict. While the tensions in the film obviously draw from the Cold War, it remains just as relevant (at least) in today's far more murky and uncertain political climate.

An influential – but very underground – figure in indie filmmaking, Peter Watkins is known for his unique style of fictional films directed and shot like cinema-verité documentaries. His best-known works in this style are the excellent biopic Edvard Munch (1974), and his highly controversial and confrontational political parables The War Game (1965) and Punishment Park (1971). So powerful is his style that despite obviously being a fictional film, The War Game won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1967. The Gladiators is similarly constructed as a documentary: in this case, a behind-the-scenes document showing the truth of the Peace Games. The story is told through footage of the “games” paired with interviews with the fighters, supplemented with voice-over narration and on-screen data about the events unfolding. All of these devices serve to underscore Watkins' analytical approach to the material. While all of it may also make the film harder to swallow for many viewers, it is crucial for what he is trying to show.

"Ummmmm....where's the button
for free pizza?!"
As underground as most of Peter Watkins' films have always been, The Gladiators has generally been more underground than most, receiving only very sparse distribution until recent years. After initially premiering at festivals and receiving some limited European theatrical runs, it largely disappeared until New Line Cinema acquired the American distribution rights in the mid-1970s. In a wildly misguided attempt to market the film as precisely the thing that it makes a point of not being, New Line tried to sell it as a dystopian sci-fi/thriller, cashing in on the success of films like Rollerball. The subsequent VHS release – which came out on the horror-focused Wizard Video, of all labels – repeated the same mistake. Needless to say, this bait-and-switch marketing ensured that the film never found its intended target audience, and it disappeared again for over twenty years. Thankfully, it finally found the right home on DVD, when the art-house label Project X Video launched The Peter Watkins Collection, which restored his entire major filmography. Unlike Punishment Park, it has yet to see any blu-ray release, but at least there is an excellent, restored disc available, allowing the film to find its audience at last.

With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 freshly released on home media, this is the perfect time to rediscover Peter Watkins' The Gladiators. It certainly is not a film for everyone: it is a challenging, potentially difficult film, and its deliberate disinterest in character development and suspense will frustrate many viewers, but it simply is asking you to focus on the ideas rather than the story. While it will not provide (and does not want to provide) the entertainment that its Hollywood counterpart does, it does offer a philosophically and politically dense, intellectual look at the same concept. If that concept intrigues you, but you want something more cerebral than typical blockbuster movies, this may be just the film you are looking for. In addition, it now offers one seriously unique opportunity: how often do we get two films so outwardly similar, so but deeply different, that can act as such interesting counterpoints for one another?

-Christopher S. Jordan