'Culloden' and 'The War Game' Don't Rewrite History, They Rewrite How We Can Learn From the Past
Peter Watkins' controversial BBC documentaries from the '60s still astound, startle, and disturb.
CullodenDirector: Peter Watkins
Cast: Tony Cosgrove, Olivier Espitalier-Noel, George McBean
UK Release Date: 1964-12-15
The War GameDirector: Peter Watkins
Cast: Michael Aspel, Peter Graham
US date: 1967-02-07
UK date: 1965-11-01
On the moors of Culloden 1746, through the smoke of cannon fire and the fog of war, we see two armies battling each other. Grapeshot, bayonets, and bloody axes. It's the last full scale conflict fought on British soil, and it ends in an overwhelming defeat for the rag-tag Jacobite forces as they are decimated by the coherent machine that is the “redcoat” Government army.
We see Scottish tartan-clad Highlanders stand together in huddles of confusion and dejection, before they fall to the ground amongst others disemboweled, lacking limbs, or simply lifeless. Yet, as the viewer, we already expect them to lose as they share their broken states of mind and inferior strategies with the documentary crew interviewing and filming them for Culloden (1964).
A nuclear war breaks out in the ‘60s. The Russians might have started it for some reason. Nobody is entirely sure who is to blame; it’s irrelevant once the bombs fall and everybody starts running. In Kent, England, we see people whose eyeballs have melted, firefighters sucked into a deadly firestorm, and police who line up burnt people in the street to end their whimpering with a pistol shot to the head.
The general populace shifts from assisting with the evacuation, through to price-gouging over the necessary tools required for unnecessary “duck and cover” tactics (remember folks: sandbags keep out radiation!), and ends with militarized rioting and the imminent collapse of the government. We know all this because, as the viewer, we see this all first hand from the documentary crew interviewing and filming them for The War Game (1965).
Newly remastered in HD and brought to Blu-ray for the first time, Peter Watkins’ two controversial television productions, Culloden and The War Game, have been packaged together by the BFI and are let loose upon your preconceptions of what BBC documentaries in the mid-'60s looked like.
These films are like Orson Welles’ 1940 radio production of The War of the Worlds made with a Saving Private Ryan (1998) aesthetic, except with more blinded, catatonically rocking, screaming, or dead children, and a canny ability to both break the fourth wall of the television screen, forcing viewers to think about the implications of what they have witnessed.
Through the news reportage format, The War Game, and Culloden to a lesser extent, there's this interesting dynamic with the push and pull of historical representation, whereby from a modern perspective the '60s setting feels like an alternate past, but it's also uncomfortably comparable to modern news broadcasts of some other far-flung place in the world, except this is in our own back yard.
In this respect, despite only having running times of 69- and 46-minutes respectively, the two films are an overwhelming assault on the senses. In fact, they are so stunning, that The War Game was banned from TV screens for 20 years due to the direct involvement of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. As John Cook, in his appended essay within the illustrated booklet, emphasizes: only a few members of the Establishment -- those who it was felt would most benefit from the documentary’s alarming and educational content -- were initially permitted to watch the film. To everyone else (read: the common people), The War Game might have induced panic, or even worse: a lack of faith in the government.
Once public pressure lead to the film receiving a limited theatrical release through the BFI, it won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Although these films are works of fiction, they are both constructed from the available evidence at the time of their production. The battle of Culloden and its aftermath, as horrific as they are presented, are based on historical fact. It was a tragedy caused by Jacobite foolishness and clan stubbornness, spearheaded by the indecisive Bonnie Prince Charlie; and the follow-on by the victorious Government army, which Culloden shows us in some uncomfortable detail, with its raping and indiscriminately massacring British “Butchers”, was far more calculatingly devastating than the fight itself.
Given the range of ridiculous actions on the battlefield and afterwards, it’s quite easy to view Culloden as a satirical take on modern field-journalism or the questionable actions of the leaders, who have been reduced to 2-dimensional caricatures with insane ideologies, but there’s this nagging feeling that it’s easier to see the film as a joke (albeit a sophisticated one), purely because the historical reality of the situation was just as pathetically tragic, and any reprieve from that sad truth is welcomed.
Likewise, The War Game explains that the premise of the show is based on official (and comprehensibly inadequate) government documentation and personal accounts from various cities, such as Hiroshima, that were bombed during WWII -- notably, again, by the allied forces. The effect then, is that the imagined alternative history of a post-apocalyptic nuclear Winter is just as realistically presented as the ‘true’ historical feature. In many ways, it’s all the more realistic as there are no rubbery swords, cannon balls bouncing off extras, or exaggerated “clutch and falls” to contend with. The end sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), where the modern police force arrives to arrest King Arthur and his knights, with the cameraman finding his lens covered by an officer, is a spot-on parody of Culloden’s approach to documentary “realism”.
Barring these few limitations of budget, in both films, the standard of production for low-budgeted TV docu-dramas is impressive. It helps that the camera work is incredibly effective at using the limitations of the mobile camera crew to its own advantage. Close-ups on figures not only demonstrate the human aspect of the tragedies -- faces covered in battlefield mud or holocaust ash, and bodies soaked in Highland moors drizzle or wasted by radioactive burns -- but they also allow for large set pieces to be executed with a relatively small number of actors.
This intensity, when also supported by the “authenticity” of the degraded, scratchy camera image, and the direct-to-camera interview technique, creates a privileged perspective. At times the camera, in getting in so close to the action, also cleverly oversteps the boundaries of its own self-defined existence, to become embroiled within the confusing dreamlike scenarios themselves.
In Culloden, we are repeatedly shown a crippled man who has been left for days on the battlefield, and then, as he is dragged off to be executed, the camera is from his perspective. Lying on the floor next to a fellow Jacobite, whose face we can observe as he is executed only mere inches from our viewpoint, it becomes the turn of the person whose perspective we have inhabited. The camera violently shakes for a brief moment, then cuts away.
In The War Game , we are shown what happens to people as they are caught in a nuclear blast, yet the camera keeps rolling. In another sequence, the documentary camera man is caught in a family home, watching a tableau of distraught relatives as they hide under a table while the house collapses around them, looking out to the camera with absolute dejection and bewildered acknowledgment of the futility of their situation as they cradle their inconsolable children. “Where did it all go wrong?” they seem to intimate. This “nuclear family” is not seen again.
The camera work in both films is bolstered by all aspects of the production. The sound design is outstanding. At times it’s difficult to make out what people are saying because of the cacophonous circumstances of their situation, and at other times the world seems to pause in silent incredulity at the misguided religious musings of the Prince in Culloden, or the distressing and distorted attempt by a vicar at the end of The War Game to invoke a religious sense of peaceful order after so much violence and loss.
Furthermore, the narrator/field interviewers (Tony Cosgrove for Culloden; Dick Graham and Michael Aspel for The War Game ) are so dry that they make the (re)constructions seem darkly comic at times. As we listen to people profess their ignorance over the finer points of field and nuclear warfare in direct to camera pieces, the narrator continually undercuts the security of their blissful ignorance, and gently pushes the viewer into the realization that very few people with positions of responsibility actually know what they are doing, and this then filters down to the people that they are supposed to protect.
It’s no wonder that the UK government had issues with The War Game . There are parts in both docu-dramas where I literally didn’t know whether to laugh or sit with my eyes wide open, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, waiting for the world to end around me.
The editing (by Michael Bradsell in both films) is also worth noting, because the rapid cuts -- when supported by the narration, sound design, and bleak aesthetic -- create an overpowering, almost expressionistic, montage of war, death, and decay. Bare feet, clenched weapons, and pleading eyes by the hundreds; when we are confronted by such tightly framed images, the impression is indelible. Furthermore, the pace eases off when we are supposed to linger on tracking shots of suffering vulnerable people, or those lifeless shapes that have already succumbed to the circumstances of their former existence.
Culloden is the weaker of the two films purely because it’s budgetary limitations are more keenly evident, and the time period is more distanced from our current reality (which is ironic, given that the conflict actually happened and directly shaped the development of Great Britain). There’s always a feeling that the educational force of the film is a little too on the nose and is one of those films that should be shown in classrooms.
The War Game, on the other hand, is absolutely essential viewing. Backstories aren’t related through narration, but are shown and hinted at in unguarded conversations, and the setting is so much easier to engage with, offering lessons to learn from right now, if we still want to avoid the dismembered landscape laid out before us.
The extras are of the high quality one would expect from the BFI. There is a 21-minute feature interview with the film editor, Michael Bradsell; audio commentaries on both films (John Cook tackles Culloden, while Patrick Murphy examines The War Game ); eight minutes of color footage on location for Culloden; a 19-minute documentary by Patrick Murphy, called The War Game: The Controversy; an on-screen gallery of the complete The War Game , which was published in 1967 to accompany the film; and an illustrated booklet with new essays by John Cook, David Archibald, and William Fowler. It would be fair to say that fans of both films are absolutely spoiled by the treasure trove of knowledge on display in all these sundry appendices.
A final note: The High Definition transfers were made from either the original 16mm A and B roll negatives (Culloden), or three 16mm negative reels (The War Game ), which makes the former a slightly cleaner image throughout, and the latter of poor quality in parts (especially where shot changes occur). Both films suffer from degradation despite the best attempts at restoration, but to my mind, this fits in with the general aesthetic of the films so it's not really an issue.