Culloden (1964)

 “They’ve created a desert and have called it “peace”.”

‘Culloden’, directed by Peter Watkins in 1964, is a British docudrama focusing on the aftermath of the Scottish Jacobite rising of 1745. The film follows the events of the battle that took place in 1746 in which the British army, supported by antagonistic Scottish clans, defeated and then massacred the followers of Charles Stuart, the pretender to the throne. The distinctive aspect of this film is the approach Watkins takes. As with his later documentary ‘The War Game’, the director opts for a style using handheld cameras, amateur actors and interviews directly to camera with the fighters. The effect is uncanny, feeling at times like a pageant-like recreation, but mostly giving the viewer an utterly immersive experience. The news-footage approach of the time and rigorously researched historical detail is the perfect combination, bringing the past into the present whilst simultaneously offering the sense of time-travelling. It’s a surprisingly brutal documentary as well – despite the limitations of budget and the fact that Watkins only had a handful of extras and a single cannon at his disposal, through expert framing and cinematography (from Dick Bush who would later act in the same role in the BBC M R James adaptation ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’) the director manages to wring out a huge amount of drama and visceral shocks. Like ‘The War Game’, the film is also socially conscious and Watkins is careful to highlight the differences between the privileged officers and the impoverished and starving private soldiers. The final act of the film sees the events after the battle, and this is perhaps the most powerful part of the documentary as the British soldiers are shown indiscriminately murdering innocent people simply to make a statement.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a ground-breaking documentary and fans of ‘Doctor Who’ will want to see the inspiration behind the 1966/7 story set during the same battle. Watch in a double bill with ‘The War Game’ for a complete sense of Watkins’ approach to the past and the future.

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