Culloden (1964)

2009 #48
Peter Watkins | 69 mins | TV | 12

CullodenCulloden tells the story of the 1746 battle — famously, the last fought on British soil — and the events that followed it, as if it were covered by a modern TV news report (albeit a feature-length one).

This adopted style — a first — makes for an effective presentation. As a form it obviously foreshadows the docudrama, a method of presenting history which is so popular today, though not quite in this way. Writer/director Peter Watkins gratifyingly refuses to break from his premise: the whole film is very much like an extended news piece, featuring interviews, facts, and the famous BBC objectivity — at no point does the narration inform us who is good and bad, right and wrong, yet leaves us with little doubt about Watkins’ opinions (which are pretty low of just about everyone).

In fact, the film is fuelled by much youthful righteous indignation from Watkins, in his late 20s when Culloden was made. That said, his (perhaps unrealistic) idealism is still in evidence in every interview I’ve seen with him from decades later (though in those cases applied to what TV is and should be). But he allows it to dominate proceedings here, too often focusing on the awful conditions of the poor or the wrongs committed against them by Nasty Rich Folk. Should we be cross about this? It is 1746 after all — of course life was awful for common folk and the upper classes were rich twits who rode roughshod over them. That’s how things were in The Past, for thousands of years before it and hundreds of years after. With our modern developed sense of morality it all looks Nasty and Wrong, but we can’t go back and change it so why get so upset about it? Surely such vitriol is better directed at places where this is still the case?

While Watkins’ righteousness is clearly present before and during the battle, it’s really let loose in the aftermath, as English soldiers commit all sorts of atrocities to the Highlanders. Perhaps this was genuinely shocking and deserved in ’64, and it’s still true that the actions taken were unforgivably horrid, but it’s no longer shocking — not because we’re desensitized to violence at this point, but because we’re now very aware that we have done horrendous things throughout our history even while painting ourselves as the good guys (as we still do today, of course). Early on he describes the workings of the clan system, ostensibly factually but with a clear undercurrent of its unfairness; yet at the end bemoans its destruction by the English. Maybe this is why Watkins struggles to find anyone likeable in the film: they’re all as bad as each other.

Even if his overly moral stance falters, Watkins’ filmmaking techniques rarely do. The use of ordinary people as actors works fine most of the time, though occasional performances or scenes show off the cast’s unprofessional roots. Watkins’ theories about how TV should be run and the involvement of the public in the way he did here may be romanticised and impractical, but it’s hard to deny that his application of them worked wonders. Performances frequently aid the documentary effect by seeming just like those in genuine interviews or news footage, whereas even the best professional actors trying to emulate such reality are usually mannered enough for the viewer to realise they’re acting.

Best of all, however, is the titular battle. These scenes are extraordinary, creating a believability even the largest Hollywood budget has often failed to challenge. It’s epic but also involving, disorientating but clearly told, brutal without needing expensive prosthetic effects or an 18 certificate. It’s a brilliant example of camerawork, sound design and editing combining under inspired direction to create a flawless extended sequence.

Culloden was a bold experiment in filmmaking — indeed, the notion of a distant historical event being presented as if covered by news cameras still sounds innovative — and Watkins mostly pulls it off, with stunning battle sequences, effective performances and a high concept that is never betrayed. A few minor weak points aside, the only serious flaw is that Watkins lets his overdeveloped morality run unchecked. His application of a modern outrage to what seems a typical historical situation grates quite quickly but never abates, ultimately reclaiming a star from what is nonetheless an exemplary effort.

4 out of 5

Culloden placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

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