Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Culloden (Watkins, 1964)

At the most basic level, Peter Watkins’ documentary, Culloden, is a vividly realized recreation of the battle of the same name – one of the bloodiest in British history. With an eye for historical accuracy, Watkins recreates the costumes, weaponry and strategies employed in the 17th century clash between the British army and Scottish rebels from the Highland Clan. Watkins places his camera in the midst of the chaos and, as viewers, we are given and up-close look at the way the cannons are fired and the daggers are thrust. We also see time and time again the way that they maim their targets. Culloden is no simple-minded action flick; nor is it a dry history lesson. Fueled by the building political tension in Vietnam at the time of the film’s release and drawing inspiration from the way television journalists were increasingly placing themselves in harm’s way in order to capture the grim realities of War, Culloden is constructed around the conceit that a camera crew has arrived on the scene to cover the battle as events unfold. Before a single blow is struck, the camera falls upon individual faces as an off-screen narrator (Watkins himself) gives us background information on how each came to the field on this day. We see a man with no possessions of his own who has pledged his own life as his ‘rent’. He and others like him fight at the whims of absurdly wealthy men to whom they are indebted. We see another man whose total income over two years would not be enough to pay for the hat of the man that stands in front of him. The leaders on both sides are interviewed and we, as viewers, get a sneak preview of the strategy each will employ – or lack thereof in the case of the Scottish leader who arrives without a prepared battle plan, opting instead to simply place faith in God.

The battle, we are told, lasted just over an hour – approximately the length of Watkins’ film. Along the way, the fictional journalists document not only the end result, but also draw attention to the war atrocities committed by the victors. We cringe as we see the wounded allowed to suffer in agony for days on the battlefield, or as British soldiers chase the families of their enemies into the wilderness and indiscriminately slaughter man, woman and child. Participants in the massacre are pressed for thoughts immediately afterward and express different views on the necessity and morality of what just occurred. Watkins’ depiction of his native country is far from flattering, ultimately insinuating that his own people were responsible for the attempted annihilation of an entire generation. Though his film tells the story of lives lost long ago, his barely contained disgust for the horrors of war is evident throughout his film. By staging the events of yesterday, yet incorporating the intrusion of modern technology, Watkins draws a very clear line from the past to the present. The unspoken question is this: how can we still be capable of such acts of barbarism and cruelty?

Despite its obscurity, Culloden is high-quality filmmaking – educational, entertaining and charged with political anger – and certainly worth the effort it may take to track it down.



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