Still featuring the war room set from WarGames, Universal 1983

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Games On Film III: WarGames - Is This a Game Or Is It Real?

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United Artists, 1983


Poster for WarGames, a video game themed movie by United Artists 1983

Poster for WarGames

At 8:50 am on November 9, 1979, the warning system at NORAD Command Post, part of a huge complex hollowed out of the 9000-foot-tall, solid granite Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado lights up like a Christmas tree. Signals that indicate a large-scale nuclear attack from Soviet Russia begin to fill screens and are relayed to duty commanders at Strategic Air Command and the Pentagon. Looking over the data, military personnel consider the sub-based attack profile highly plausible. Over the next six minutes the American military complex goes into high alert: Air Force Interceptors are scrambled to protect the U.S. from Soviet bombers, ICBM missiles are warmed up in their silos, and FAA air traffic controllers enact SCATANA (Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids) operations which clear the airspace of civilian traffic in some areas of the U.S.. Even the President’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post (Doomsday plane) takes aloft, although without the President actually aboard. For these six minutes, the fate of the world hangs in the balance, until NORAD is eventually able to confirm through the PAVE PAWS early warning radar system that no actual missiles are being detected, along with satellite data confirmation. After the alert is canceled, it is eventually determined that a technician at NORAD had loaded a test tape into a computer, but had failed to take the proper precautions to prevent this training data from being issued to the warning system. An off-site testing facility is constructed for future war games testing.

Slowly the script evolves into the story of an alienated hacker teen who infiltrates, originally, a space-based laser defense system.


It is incidents like this, and numerous other human and technical mishaps involving the nuclear arsenal of the major superpowers, that sets the stage for two novice scriptwriters named Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker to write a movie script in 1979, titled The Genius. It starts as the germ of an idea from Lasker of a story about an alienated genius kid and his mentor, a dying scientist inspired by real-life astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. Discussing it with former college roommate Parkes, it turns out that he has had a similar inspiration. Combining their ideas, they find support for the project from producer Leonard Goldberg of Universal Studios, and so they continue fleshing out the story. During their research, they interview hackers at different schools around the U.S., including UCLA. There, they even visit a student at home, while he shows them how to hack into the UCLA mainframe. They also talk with computer security experts, such as Willis Ware of the RAND Corporation, a government think tank. They also tap members of the Stanford Research Group or SRI, such as long-time computer research engineer and computer crime expert Donn Parker, as well as Peter Schwartz. SRI is a non-profit scientific research institute involved in running nuclear war simulations for the government. It is Schwartz who gives a lead to the screenwriters about the military’s interest in videogames and the possible applications of them in training and combat. Atari’s conversion of Ed Rotberg’s popular Battlezone arcade game into a Bradley Fighting Vehicle trainer for the U.S. Military could have been another connection. One piece of the puzzle they do read about is the SIOP or Single Integrated Operational Plan. This is basically an ever-refined playbook of how the U.S. would deploy nuclear weapons, with various attack options offered, depending on the circumstances at play.

Slowly the script evolves into the story of an alienated hacker teen who infiltrates, originally, a space-based laser defense system. Through later scripts, this evolves into the war plans computer at NORAD, setting things in motion towards nuclear Armageddon, with the dying now-computer scientist mentor overcoming his bitterness with the world to help the young man save it.


Born from the fallout of the first nuclear bomb tests conducted by the Soviets soon after WWII, as well as the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, NORAD or North American Aerospace Defense Command is a joint defensive organization between the U.S. and Canada, tasked to track all man-made objects in Earth space, as well as to detect any airborne attack against North America. Drilled nearly a mile into the solid granite core of Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colorado, NORAD HQ can withstand an up to 30 megaton nuclear blast, within 2 kilometers of the site. With NORAD HQ playing a prominent part in their story, Lasker and Parkes touch base with the Air Force Los Angeles Public Affairs Office to set up a research trip. On September 15, 1980, this trip is facilitated by Lt. Col. Duncan Wilmore, the Air Force Public Affairs Officer in LA. The two screenwriters travel to NORAD Defence Command at Cheyenne Mountain Incognito, ostensibly as part of a VIP tour of Los Angeles civic leaders. At the end of their tour of the facility, they are apprehended by General James V. Hartinger, NORAD Commander in Chief, a rambunctious type who’s aware of their intentions and leads them off to the base bar to have a drink and discuss the script. The two writers win the heart of Hartinger by emphasizing the aspect of their story about the need for human control of the nuclear arsenal, rather than putting it under computer control, something they had received hints of happening during their research. The General enthusiastically agrees and relays to them that contractors and technical experts are indeed trying to take the decision-making process for nuclear retaliation out of human hands. “I sleep pretty well knowing I’m in charge”, he tells the two scriptwriters, a phrase that would echo through to his eventual equivalent in the finished film. Lasker and Parkes also put their method of infiltrating NORAD via a tour group into the film, only this time as a way for Lightman to exit the facility unnoticed.

Into Production

Lasker and Parkes take about a year to finish the first draft of the script and present it to Goldberg. Universal submits the script to the Air Force LA office for comments in June of 1981. Five weeks later, cooperation from the Pentagon slams shut, with criticism from the military mostly along the lines that the entire film is based on a “false premise” that could never possibly happen. As the scope of the script increases, requiring more scenes inside the NORAD HQ and thus sets needed to portray the complex, Universal insists that the budget for the film must be below $8 million.  This is too low of a figure for producer Goldberg, and he walks away from the studio with Lasker and Parkes in tow. They and the movie project eventually end up at United Artists, where subsequent money problems at the studio put the film into turnaround multiple times.

Still featuring John Wood in WarGames, a video game themed movie by MGM/UA 1983

John Wood as Stephen Falken


The budget is eventually pegged at 12 million dollars, and a friend of Lasker, Martin Brest, is attached as director. Brest is best known up to that point for having directed the George Burns vehicle Going in Style. After multiple auditions, 21-year-old unknown Matthew Broderick is cast as WarGames hacker David Lightman, mostly on the strength of dailies from his first film, Max Dugan Returns. Broderick’s wonderful performance as Lightman is all the more remarkable considering that, while shooting the film, his father is in NYC dying from cancer; his son takes all his free time from shooting to travel back and stay by his father’s bedside. To help him portray a video game whiz kid, a month before shooting starts Broderick is supplied with both a Galaga and Galaxian arcade game for his family’s apartment, to practice on in his free time. The saddest part is when they come to take them back, but Broderick has become so proficient that he can provide plenty of long takes when it comes time to film his arcade scenes.

WarGames is also Ally Sheedy’s second movie role, after appearing in Bad Boys with Sean Penn. Known at that time mostly as a TV actress, she gets the part of Lightman’s confidante and girlfriend Jennifer Mack mostly on the effortless chemistry that forms between Broderick and her during readings. Needing an officious prick as McKittrick, the ambitious manager of NORAD’s computer system, producers, of course, opt for Dabney Coleman. English actor John Wood plays the enigmatic Professor Falken. Falken, as written in an early draft of the script, was wheelchair bound and suffering from ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a character homage to Stephen Hawking. While under development at Universal, Lasker, and Parkes had been in touch with John Lennon to play the role, one that would jive well with Lennon’s pacifism. Lennon’s assassination outside the Dakota apartments in NYC in 1980 puts an end to that possibility. Barry Corbin, of TV show Northern Exposure fame, rounds out the major cast as Gen. Berenger, a character obviously based on the real life commander of NORAD they had met on their visit. There’s also more than a little Curtis LeMay in Corbin’s cigar-chomping performance, LeMay being the hawkish commander of SAC in the 50′s, who advocated a preemptive nuclear exchange as U.S. military strategy and provided George C. Scott with his inspiration for his role as General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy classic Dr. Strangelove.


Other differences abound in early drafts of the script, such as Lightman and Jennifer, then named Christie, living in New Haven, Connecticut. They are relocated to Seattle in the final film. The company that touts its breakthrough games which spur Lightman to search for them online is originally famous toy-maker Mattel, as opposed to the fictional Protovision in the film as shot. The character that gets the shortest shrift through script editing is probably Jim Sting. In the Genius script, Sting is Captain Crunch, the infamous real-life hacker who’s actual name is John Draper. A lot of parents probably cursed Quaker Oats when kids pulled out the prize from their boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal in 1971, a little plastic bosun whistle, and promptly started blowing it loudly around the house. Draper famously discovered that one could blow the toy whistle into a phone and duplicate the 2600Hz tone that would keep a long distance line open and fool the phone system into thinking that it had been released, thereby granting long distance service for practically free. He shares this information with a couple of garage hackers in California, who go on to build a “blue box”, an electronic version of the bosun whistle that allows complete takeover of the phone network. These two malcontents are named Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak, who make some money selling these boxes before going on to found Apple Computer.

In early movie scripts, Sting is a mentor to Lightman, having a couple of scenes where he comes to the young hacker’s assistance. In the finished film, Sting is played by Canadian actor Maury Chaykin, and suffers several indignities: he is relegated to only one scene, stripped of his Captain Crunch hacker bona fides, and is stuck with perennial geek Eddie Deezen, playing a character simply named Malvin, as a sidekick. The actual Draper is hired as a consultant to the film, perhaps responsible for scenes such as the one where Lightman avoids having to put change into a payphone by opening a circuit using a pop-top pull-tab against the metal leads in the handset mic, something I can’t confirm actually works, despite trying several times after seeing WarGames for the first time. As noted previously, Professor Falken undergoes quite a transformation, moving from dying, wheelchair-bound invalid to the bipedally mobile, but demoralized, computer scientist played by Wood.

Change in Direction

John Badham, director of WarGames, a video game themed movie by MGM/UA 1983

WarGames director John Badham, undated photo

In pre-production, director Martin Brest shapes the film more to his own vision, working a nine-month polish of the script with hired gun scriptwriter Walon Green, and subsequently wrestling the movie from Lasker and Parkes, shutting them out of the project. When he begins principal photography, he immediately draws the ire of the studio with his insular nature, and dark vision of the subject matter. A short two weeks later, he is fired as director, with frequent blow-ups on set with the producers finally doing him in. In August of 1982, John Badham is brought in to replace him, a director who had cut his teeth in television before shaking the world’s booty with his second feature film: the seminal 1977 disco movie Saturday Night Fever, starring another TV alumnus, John Travolta. Don’t cry too much for Brest, however, as he scores big the year after WarGame’s release with the massive hit comedy Beverly Hills Cop, starring Eddie Murphy. Badham keeps most of Brest’s shot footage, but he also lightens the tone considerably, coaxing his young leads from the stiff zombified attitudes they had assumed under Brest to more loose and engaged, and looking like they’re having fun. Sheedy’s role is greatly expanded from the original draft; instead of vanishing from the last half of the movie, she aids with Lightman’s escape after Cheyenne Mountain and joins him in coaxing Falken to do something about Joshua. Lt. Col. Wilmore, having retired from the military since getting Lasker and Parkes a tour of NORAD, works as technical advisor for the film, as well as appearing as Col. Lem, the computer operator in the war room who gets locked out from standing down the missiles by WOPR towards the end of the film.

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    1. avatarWilliam

      Whoopsie, I choked on my cereal when I read your post. I will correct my mistake, and point out that Cap’n Crunch contains a whopping 754mg of sodium per serving, or 31% of the daily recommended intake! The Cap’n surely be a salty dog! Thanks for writing! Yaaar.


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