The Gladiators (1969)

Viewed March 3rd

International governments come together to eliminate war, but only through an annual "Peace Games" in which drafted citizens must take place in a series of lethal war exercises.   

Produced at the height of the Vietnam War & in the wake of May '68, Peter Watkins' The Gladiators must have felt laceratingly edgy to those who saw it at the time of its release. Its ability to turn a deliciously absurd thought experiment into a brutally ironic genre film, along with its observations about the global elite's need for continual warfare at the expense of the common man, push it beyond a representation of political thought toward an original mode of political thought itself. In fact, many of its points (about the dollars and cents of killing as a plausible if not utterly cynical impediment to war, or, that the production of a war goes hand-in-hand with the production of a mass media broadcast) are, of course, utterly relevant to our own situation here in Trump's America. The way Watkins presents these ideas through his merger of documentary and narrative technique crystallizes certain points about the world order that would not have been as possible solely with text, another media, or even classic film narration.  

However, viewed today, in the wake of Watkins' own later films, sci-fi films that further pushed the dystopian gladiator arena concept, and slews of political documentaries such as the films of Adam Curtis, the edge feels less lacerating. Which would be fine if under all that edge and intellectual sophistication there was an absorbing movie, but there's not really. One thing that's not happening here is the development of a seductive film world. Without the shock of the new, it doesn't absorb you. There's a tedium where (only because these tropes have been developed since The Gladiators) you know what's coming, more or less, and are waiting for it to happen. The genre plot is there, yes, but it doesn't really matter--it's basically in the service of illustrating various ideas Watkins' has about the world. It wasn't until later films, perhaps peaking with Edward Munch (1974)that Watkins aesthetic and cinematic skills would match his intellectual ones in order to create a more truly timeless work. In Edward Munch, he uses the camera and editing techniques and an approach to directing the actors that, in sum, creates a hypnotic rhythm and brings you into the world of the film.