At a time when historical programming consists almost entirely of royalist sycophancy and “celebrities” ambling around ruins, it is instructive to recall the early works of radical film-maker Peter Watkins. Both Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965) were commissioned by the BBC under the aegis of Huw Wheldon, then head of the BBC’s Documentary Film Department when BBC 2 was still in its infancy.
Based upon a study by historian John Prebble, Culloden brings to life a critical episode in British history — the last battle ever fought on its soil, the final confrontation between the Jacobite army under “Bonnie” Prince Charlie and the Duke of Cumberland’s Redcoats on 16 April 1746. Watkins draws clear parallels between the “pacification” of the Highlands and the conduct of America’s war in Vietnam. He films the battle and subsequent clearances as they would be covered by modern day news crews.
The gritty, hand-held nature of the battle scene footage, and the unswerving, direct to camera statements made by ruthless soldiers and hard-pressed clansmen alike (all played by non-professional actors) give an immediacy and power to the film that is closer to “cinema verite” documentary than historical melodrama.
Watkins had established himself as a major talent with Culloden, and immediately began work on what was to become one of the most controversial films ever made for the BBC. The War Game was Watkins’ attempt to break the corporation’s silence on the subject of nuclear weapons with a plausible fiction in which a village in Kent accidentally suffers the first blow in a nuclear war between Nato and the Soviet Union. The film depicts in harrowing detail exactly what such a strike would be like, and the ensuing devastation it would cause. With even less money and resources to work with than he had on Culloden, Watkins and his tiny crew still managed to create one of the most terrifying visions of nuclear apocalypse ever committed to film.
The War Game made agile use of hand-held, mobile camera work, sharp collisions between Civil Defence information and the horror of radiation sickness, depictions of societal disintegration in the wake of nuclear war — “in this car, a family is burning” — and brutal satire of authority figures who bluster about “still believing in a just war”. It constituted an incendiary device thrown right into the heart of the establishment.
Shamefully, the BBC, Wilson’s Labour government and the media all colluded to suppress the film and to marginalise its talented and principled director. The BBC refused to air the film until 1985, despite it winning the Oscar for best documentary feature in 1966. Watkins moved into feature films thereafter but continually struggled to find finance and distribution for his movies.
The BFI’s release of this pristine dual format DVD/Blu-Ray double-feature edition of these two early Watkins films in is very welcome. Their timely reissue is a testament to a genuinely revolutionary film-maker whose work remains vital and relevant to the world we live in today.