The work of British director Peter Watkins (Punishment Park, Edvard Munch) has only recently started turning up on DVD, giving a new lease on life to films that have been too long forgotten. Watkins' 1969 film The Gladiators, released on DVD last month, borders on brilliant and is a must-see for lovers of subversive cinema. Set in the not-too-distant future, Gladiators depicts a world where wars are a thing of the past. Replacing the senseless destruction that once left millions of lives destroyed, there is now the Peace Game. Organized by the United Nations and televised live all over the globe, the Peace Game stages military exercises in which representatives from various nations form teams to battle representatives from other countries. These acts of violence, sponsored by a leading pasta company, supposedly help to appease mankind's natural aggressive state. But when the Swedish-engineered computer that controls the Peace Game begins to malfunction, things start to go wrong.
The Gladiators is a blistering indictment of the media and military might. It laid the groundwork for other films critical of the media that have come along over the years, without pulling any punches. Much like Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, it is a cautionary tale of warfare, with brilliant touches of black comedy. Watkins' faux-documentary style of filmmaking creates a gritty sense of realism that is often unsettling, and much like Punishment Park, which came two years later, The Gladiators often feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.
For decades, Watkins' work has been dismissed and condemned for what has been called subversive politics and his harsh criticism of the media. But now, as his films are being rediscovered and reconsidered, Watkins seems less of a provocateur and more of a prophet.