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The Gladiators (The Peace Game)

  •  - Sweden
  •  - Sandrews
  •  - 1968
  •  - 105 mins


The growing professional isolation which followed the banning of ‘The War Game’, as well as the vicious critical attacks on ‘Privilege’ made me rather inclined to leave the UK. I was finally able to do so, and began what became permanent exile from my own country, when I was approached by Sandrews in Stockholm. Sandrews was a major cinema distributor and at that time a production company (they were producing two films by Susan Sontag); they had just premiered ‘The War Game’ in Stockholm, and offered to produce any film I chose to make. Nicholas Gosling, a young writer, joined me in developing a script for what became my second feature film. ‘The Gladiators’ is a bleak satire set in the near future, in which the major powers of the world, East and West, aligned and non-aligned, recognize the possibility of a major world war within our lifetime, and try to forestall it by channeling man’s aggressive instincts in a more controllable manner. They do this by forming an International Commission along the lines of the United Nations, dedicated to fighting a series of contests between teams of selected soldiers from each country. These competitions, which can be fought to the death, are called ‘Peace Games’, and are broadcast on global television via satellite - complete with sponsors and commercials. The film follows Game 256, which is being ‘played’ in the International Peace Game Centre near Stockholm, under the controlling eye of a highly sophisticated computer, hired out to the International Commission by the (neutral) Swedish Army. The international group of officers watching Game 256 decide to eliminate a man and a woman from opposing teams who reach out to each other, because they decide that such forms of communication would be the gravest threat of all to the stability of the existing world-system.


The ‘Gladiators’ was filmed during the summer and autumn of 1968 in a deserted brick factory in the countryside at Kårsta, outside of Stockholm, and in a empty ‘slott’ (minor castle) at Mälsåker on the shores of Lake Mälar. The international cast was a mix of professional and non-professional actors. Many, including the people representing the Chinese army, came from London. The crew included producer Bo Jonsson, cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, sound recordist Tage Sjoborg, costumer Chris Collins, art director Bill Brodie, make-up artist Ann Brodie, and editor Lasse Hagström. ‘The Gladiators’ was produced during and following - and was directly influenced by - an upsurge in revolutionary events throughout Europe in 1968, especially the student uprisings in Paris. It was a difficult film to make. I had planned to use a fluid, mobile camera-style, but immediately found myself encumbered by (at that time) extremely heavy and non-portable 35mm camera equipment. I therefore reverted, force majeure, to a formal static style.


‘The Gladiators’ (Gladiatorerna) was first released in Sweden in June 1969 - to a very stormy press: mostly dismissive in Sweden, somewhat more mixed in Britain, and with at least one very positive review in the US, by Judith Crist in the New York Magazine. ‘The Gladiators’ was shown at one or two festivals, and following on what was to become a pattern for most of my subsequent films, disappeared. There were a few screenings on Swedish TV, and as far as I know, it was never again shown in a cinema. There has never been any discussion about the ideas that ‘The Gladiators’ worked with, its allegorical form, or its critique of contemporary commercialized society.

‘... a vague and partly connected film, a debate film which in its revolutionary conclusions mumbles and falters instead of speaking clearly ... as in the previous ‘Privilege’ it also happens that Watkins uses construction and caricature rather than the brain ... Peter Watkins is a director who has better opinions than thoughts.’ (Aftonbladet) ‘

... an extremely unsuccessful film - now and then a magnificent failure. Peter Watkins is not a fool, but he is naive and politically a vague thinker. Evidently, he thinks right, though it often becomes wrong ... a rather square political film; and as entertainment it is simply boring.’ (Expressen)

‘The great message in ‘The Gladiators’ is that all known social and political systems are just as reprehensible ... Transferred into pictures this is deadly boring, a natural result of Watkins’ miserable way of making films as an illustration of theses decided upon beforehand.’ (Svenska Dagbladet)

‘The audience wants someone to cheer for - and at least they want to have fun. In ‘The Gladiators’ they only meet Peter Watkins’ pessimistic solemnity which is not even balanced by a bit of black humour ... However cleverly this data-operated gladiator game has been devised, it also has a severe lack of logic. The game is supposed to be witnessed by a television audience all over the world. Such an audience would never allow the inhuman slaughter of the English soldier and the Chinese girl, whose “crime” is that they have not stuck to the rules of the game. Seen deeply, that is the blind stain of Watkins: he underestimates the feelings of the audience. But I cannot help being positive about Peter Watkins. He is still only 33 years old.’ (Kvällposten)‘

... Watkins has not aimed at an ordinary feature film ... and the film does not resemble any other film ... The message of ‘The Gladiators’ is something that you can completely sympathize with, and therefore the film is definitely interesting and captivating.’ (Uppsala Nya Tidning)

‘Peter Watkins’ political and satirical ideas have always struck me as naive, from the bludgeoning of ‘The War Game’ to the disastrous ‘Privilege’. And his new film (‘The Gladiators’) is certainly also naive... The satire tends to be cheap. But the central metaphor is formidably strong, and Watkins’ meticulous expertise with arms and men in conflict and violence, his attention to detail and his careful drilling of a substantially non-actor cast, background the metaphor well ... It is a substantial film, cruel and precise ... It is, mercifully, open-ended. We draw our own conclusions from the horrors we see.’ (The Scotsman)

‘Soldierly language, no doubt, is one reason why ‘The Peace Game’ is showing at the Contentale and not at some more central place in the Leicester Square district. But it should certainly be showing somewhere central and having a lot of fuss made about it. It’s highly intelligent and thought-provoking ... two more qualities, I suppose, that make it a commercial risk ... A cynical perhaps gloomy moral; but the film is so well done that it’s stimulating, not depressing.’ (Punch)

‘The trouble, as with Mr. Watkins’ earlier ‘The War Game’, is not that he is not talented (technically he has very real gifts) or even that his basic idea is unworkable, but that he takes for granted as public property a whole set of more or less private myths which he therefore apparently feels no need to establish, argue out for us, or even elementarily to expound. His position is as remote and special as Blake’s in his prophetic books, but with no corresponding burning integrity of vision ...’ (The Times)

‘Peter Watkins is a director I admire enormously. Running through his work are an anger and a passionate concern with the central problems of our society that isolate him from the bulk of his British contemporaries. They rarely seek to change society through their films: Watkins is trying to do it all the time. For that reason he has inevitably met with a good deal of obloquy ... And now comes ‘The Peace Game’, made in Sweden and rigorously continuing Watkins’ clear-eyed exploration of the direction our society is taking ... You may not agree with everything in it but it is still a film I strongly urge you to see.’ (The Illustrated London News)

‘Peter Watkins’ film seemed just as ham-handed to me on the second viewing as on the first: a lugubrious and clumsy satire which sheds less light on the problems of aggression and violence than it does on the obsessions and personal anguish of Mr. Watkins.’ (Observer)

‘An ingenious idea, but director Peter Watkins ... has developed it with naivety and such crude characterisation that it is impossible to take it seriously even as a moral fable ... The film moves so slowly that you can practically hear it snoring ...’ (Daily Express)

‘The Gladiators’ is the finest Peter Watkins film to date ... it won the grand prize at the International Science Film festival in Trieste but was rejected by the New York Film Festival, which this year chose to run his trashily hysterical anti-American American film, ‘Punishment Park’. ‘The Gladiators’ happens not only to be a beautifully constructed suspense thriller but also one of the finest anti-war films of recent years, a cool and cogent commentary on international militarism, the entrenchment of The System and, with piercing bitterness, the ultimate sameness of systems ... there is subtlety and sophistication in the construction, a steady undergrowth of suspense and a morally devastating conclusion to be reached - all by way of imaginative cinema and beautiful technique.’ (New York Magazine)

‘Peter Watkins ne cherche à faire plaisir à personne. On le jugera utopiste et mauvais esprit. Moi, petite tête, je trouve son film beau et courageux, et je lui pardonne bien volontiers quelques lenteurs, rachetées par un humour glacé, très britannique, qui a fait ma joie. Un film qui dans sa transposition romanesque est d’une vérité aveuglante. Car le cri universal n’est pas: mort à la guerre, mais bien mort aux pacifistes! Merci Peter Watkins, vous avez en moi un spectateur fidèle et un supporter acharné.’ (Le Canard enchaîné)

© Peter Watkins 2024