The pseudo-documentary (docudrama) The Battle of Culloden––made for BBC Television––was the first feature film by the soon to be famous (in somewhat esoteric circles) radical pacifist Peter Watkins (best known for his films Punishment Park and The War Game). I was so horrifically blown away by his well-known pseudo-documentary, Punishment Park (1971) that I had extremely high hopes when I picked up this earlier effort.
I was not disappointed — The Battle of Culloden is a wonderful experience despite the small number of amateur actors. This is entirely due to the bizarre decision to place the camera crew in the thick of the action interviewing the participants. Yes, strange as this anachronistic experience (the battle took place in 1745) might seem, the result is intense, disturbed, brutal, and harrowing. An unusual feeling creeps up slowly — the camera feels perfectly normal moving among the ranks the Scottish and British armies and into the homes of the massacred victims after the Scottish defeat
Brief Plot Summary (historical background)
The Battle of Culloden was the last pitched battle fought on British soil which ended in a decisive governmental victory over the rag-tag/disorganized Jacobite forces of The Young Pretender (Charles Edward Stuart) in 1746. Fresh off a series of victories (of an army not under his command) over the governmental forces of George II, The Young Pretender believed that God would give him victory (he also believed that the people will rise up an help him despite the fact that there are more Scotts fighting on king George’s side than his). Ignoring the advice of one of his generals, The Young Pretender chose an ill-suited battlefield devoid of protection from the superior cavalry of the enemy. Similarly, he refused to tear down a series of stone walls which eventually hide a British flanking force. The battle unfolds and the smoke from the cannons obscures much of what is happening. Charles Edward Stuart––paralyzed with fear since his only previous military experience occurred when he was a teenage during a siege–– hides behind his battle line.
Much of the battle is described by a historian for the British army relaying information to the camera crew as the battle progresses. Occasionally the camera crew asks various participants questions and soldiers position the dead and dying near them for the camera to see. The casualties increase and increase.
The most powerful moments in this unusual docudrama occur before and after the battle. Before the battle the camera crews interviews the various simple Scottish and British soldiers, some who have been drafted into the army the previous day, others fighting to revenge their dead brothers in various clan wars and cattle raids, others obeying the command of their lord as they have for hundreds and hundreds of years, others seized from their tenant farms and forced to fight with their young sons… After the battle, the carnage doesn’t stop — we see the British soldiers massacring civilians. Peter Watkins maintains an impartial lens throughout. But, this is not an anti-British Scottish apology piece. We see war as war was.
If anything, Peter Watkins is de-mystifying one of the great British victories. We see both the Scottish and British soldiers as humans, as monsters, imprisoned by the greater whims of their leaders both intelligent and imbecilic, men possessed by revenge and misguided patriotism.
Peter Watkin’s trademark cinematic techniques create this unique experience — the voice-overs, the interviews, the grainy images, the black and white hand held cinematography… This is a remarkable achievement. His future films hone the technique in creating an even more horrific experience in The War Game, a docudrama on the aftereffects of a nuclear war so disturbingly realistic that it was banned from showing on British (won an Oscar for best documentary). This is definitely worth watching. Highly recommended. Not for the squeamish.