Peter Watkins’ 1964 docudrama was ahead of its time
by MATTHEW GAULT
British soldiers in service to the Duke of Cumberland crest a hill and follow the beat of a drum. “Wednesday April 16, 1746,” a dry-toned narrator states. “This is the advanced battalion of an English government army of 9,000 men.”
A wind swept moor full of rolling hills, rocks, grass fills the screen.
“Their objective,” the narrator says, “Culloden Moor, four and half miles Southeast of the Highland town of Inverness. Their purpose — the destruction of the Highland Jacobite army of rebellion; a tired, ill administered force of less than 5,000 men who wait just beyond the top of this ridge.”
A nervous man in a tricorn hat fidgets with his chin as he leans on a highlander for support, as if he can’t quite stand on his own power.
“Sir Thomas Sheridan,” the narrator says. “Jacobite military secretary. Suffering advanced debility and loss of memory.” The camera zooms in on Sheridan’s coughing fit. “Former military engagement — 56 years ago.”
A fat, oafish man in tartan dress scratches his head and points in the distance. “Sir John MacDonald. Jacobite captain of cavalry. Aged, frequently intoxicated, described as a man of the most limited capacities.”
A man in black, with a bad gray wig and a running sore on his lip stands before a line of Scottish warriors. “John William O’Sullivan. Jacobite quartermaster general. Described as an Irishman whose vanity is superseded only by his lack of wisdom.”
A fey man in fancy dress sits atop a horse. His lip curls and his eyebrows furrow in concern. “Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Jacobite commander in chief,” the narrator explains. “Former military experience — 10 days in attendance at a siege at the age of 13.”
This is Culloden — a British documentary about the infamous Battle of Culloden where an overwhelming English force massacred the Jacobite opposition before moving into the Scottish Highlands to pacify the rebels and destroy a way of life.
The film opens with a catalog of Jacobite incompetents, and because it’s a British film, foreign audiences might expect Culloden to be revisionist romance about the might of the English army in the face of Scottish rebels.
Culloden isn’t that kind of movie. It’s an odd documentary that seeks to explain the foolishness of Jacobite leadership, the horrors of Culloden Moor and the genocide that followed.
Culloden is a faux-documentary written and directed by the relatively unknown British genius Peter Watkins. Throughout the ’60s, Watkins crafted strange documentary-style films for the BBC and scared the crap out of the establishment.
In 1965, Watkins filmed his most famous work, The War Game, which tells the story of how Britain might fare during a nuclear war. Watkins shot it in a documentary style. He wanted nuclear war to feel immediate and scary.
It worked … and the BBC suppressed The War Game for 20 years. Hollywood awarded it an Oscar for best documentary, despite it being a fictional account of a hypothetical reality and which never aired in a theater.
Watkins’ filmed Culloden in the same style as The War Game. He wanted to explore a misunderstood piece of British history and destroy popular myths about the last major land battle fought on British soil. It worked; Culloden is just as powerful and horrifying as The War Game.
He cast the movie with locals near the Scottish town of Inverness. Highlanders and people from town played the Jacobite forces while Lowland amateurs and young men from London played the British.
Watkins dressed those amateurs in period clothes, then filmed the battle as a news report. The camera moves through the battle and the actors respond to the camera as if it exists. This isn’t a History Channel style reenactment. It’s dirty, weird and hypnotic.
An off-camera voice asks soldiers about their lives while they stare into the lens. The soldiers sport scars, sun damaged faces, hungry eyes and open sores. It’s as if Watkins traveled back in time to film the fight — an impressive achievement in 1964.
“This was the 1960s, and the U.S. Army was ‘pacifying’ the Vietnam highlands. I wanted to draw a parallel between these events and what had happened in our own U.K. Highlands two centuries earlier, including because our knowledge of what took place after ‘Culloden’ was basically limited to an exotic image of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ on the label of a Drambuie whiskey bottle,” Watkins wrote on his personal website.
“Secondly, I wanted to break through the conventional use of professional actors in historical melodramas, with the comfortable avoidance of reality that these provide, and to use amateurs — ordinary people — in a reconstruction of their own history. Many of the people portraying the Highland army in our film were direct descendants of those who had been killed on the Culloden Moor.”
The focus on the common soldier is foremost. When Culloden talks about the leadership, it is only to draw parallels between them and the common men or to pillory them for their incompetence.
The camera focuses on a bloated man in fancy dress and the audience learns he’s the Duke of Cumberland, leader of the British forces, third son of King George who earns 15,000 pounds per year.
The man with a sun damaged face, his skin peeling under a dome of long black hair, marches forward with a dull snarl on his face. “Patrick McCalmon. Three days ago a sergeant. Two days ago, 800 lashes for looting. Today a private,” the narrator explains.
“John Mallaby. Private,” the narrator says as the camera focuses on a younger, less terrible looking man. “Pressed into service.”
“William Roach. Private,” the narrator says as the camera lands on a boy no older than 15. He looks worried. “Two years of his pay would not by even the wig and hat of the officer marching in front of him.”
Cut to the officer. He seems smug. “Joshua Ward. Lieutenant. British army. A fraternity where the least pretension to learning, to piety or to common morals would endanger the owner to be cashiered.
Then the fighting starts.
Culloden is violent and gory. Watkins, ever ahead of his time, moved in close to his subjects and shot much of the actual fighting by hand. The result is a modern looking war scene shot in black and white.
The camera shakes, the ground explodes and men fall to the ground. During the artillery charges of the opening moments of the battle, it seems a little silly as men collapse near explosions too far away to actually harm them.
It’s different, though, when the lines meet and the hand-to-hand combat stars. Here, Watkins’ hand-shot camera work and attention to detail pay off. He wants to sicken the audience, not glamorize war.
Children as young as nine, pressed into battle on either side, roll on the ground screaming and clutching bloodied faces. A British officer takes a broadsword to the face, his gashed and bleeding mug screams into the camera.
Sometimes, Watkins freezes the frame on an act of carnage to tell you the soldier’s name and report what happened to their family after the conflict. Some of those stories are worse than anything that happens on the battlefield.
Charles Stuart, sobbing, watches his men cut down by the superior British forces. The camera pulls back and scans the battlefield to reveal dead bodies covered in blood. The narrator knows who to blame.
“Charles pitted these men against the modern musket and bayonet, against cavalry and cannon,” he explains. “Thus, in one hour eight minutes he has reduced the flower of the Highland clans to twitching limbless corpses.”
The back half of Culloden tells what came next. The Royal forces moved through the Highlands, capturing and killing rebels, relatives of rebels and people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In some cases, the narrator drones with brutal specificity about individual soldiers and their families as if reading from a public record.
A woman languishes in the street, her face a shroud behind which blood rushes forth and splatters the ground. A nervous woman tells a story about British officers murdering her two-week-old baby. Soldiers run down whole families in the hills and glens.
Cumberland called this pacification. Over the next 10 years, Parliament passed oppressive laws that effectively outlawed Highland culture. “Thus, within a century of Culloden the Scottish and British lowlanders had made secure forever their religion, their commerce, their culture, their ruling dynasty and in so doing had destroyed a race of people,” the narrator explains.
“They have created a desert and have called it peace.”