Recently, as I was packing for the Save Our Schools March this weekend, I ran into some clips of a film I haven’t seen in many years.
Looking at it now, the film still shocks and absorbs me, especially since it was decades ahead of its time.
In 1964, the BBC released a film on British television stations by director Peter Watkins. Culloden was a film about the 1746 Battle of Culloden Moor between the British Army and the rebel forces of the Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was the culmination of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, an attempt by Scots and other Britons to depose the German-born king of Great Britain and re-install the Stuart royal family of Scotland.
Yet what makes Culloden so prescient is not the subject material—it is the film itself.
Watkins shot Culloden as a drama-documentary, interviewing the characters (officers, soldiers, and local people) as if they were on a 20th century TV special. His narration, unlike many earlier depictions of the battle, is remarkably newslike and spares no detail no matter how gory or disturbing.
Finally, the grim, horrific nature of war, and of war atrocities, is brought into terrible focus—even through the grainy black-and-white lens of 1960s television. It was created as a window on the then-emerging Vietnam conflict (take a guess which side is which) and the acting seems hokey at times.
But look closely: even among today’s viewers, Culloden can still shock and create furious debate about war, violence, class division, patriotism, and a whole host of social conflicts, just as it did in 1964.
Attached are three excerpts from the film. The entire film is not available streaming, but Amazon has a double-feature DVD of both Culloden and Watkins’ 1965 masterpiece The War Game, a film about nuclear war so intense the BBC wouldn’t show it in full for 20 years.