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Culloden (1964)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Culloden (1964)
BBC, 15/12/1964
75 minutes, black & white
DirectorPeter Watkins
ProducerPeter Watkins
ScriptPeter Watkins
PhotographyDick Bush

Cast: George McBean (Clan Chief Alexander MacDonald); Alan Pope (Clansman Alec McColl); the people of Inverness

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A reconstruction of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, presented as if captured by documentary cameras at the time.

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Culloden (BBC, tx. 15/12/1964) marked the professional debut of writer/director Peter Watkins, who developed a ground-breaking alliance of documentary technique and vivid dramatic reconstruction.

A detailed study of the 1746 Battle of Culloden and the ensuing brutal suppression of the Highland Scots, Culloden drew much of its analysis and voice-over narration from the history book of the same name by John Prebble, who was credited as historical adviser. Culloden's early section introduced the audience to the battle's famous leaders and forgotten victims alike, documenting the failures of the Highlanders' leadership and poor preparation, before graphically dramatising the battle itself.

Drawing on his portrayals of organised violence and media myth in his earlier amateur short films, Watkins honed his distinctive techniques. He brought the reality of the conflict to a modern audience by using hand-held camerawork and interviews to-camera to record the reactions of non-professional actors, who were instructed to look at and acknowledge the camera, and whose convincing suffering provoked rumours - as with Watkins' later banned The War Game (1965) - of real cruelty. Despite its low budget, Culloden achieved convincing battle scenes by appealing to the imagination of the viewer, cutting quickly between confused events and holding on tight close-ups while sound detailed unseen horrors. The effect was occasionally heightened by devices like juddering the camera as if the cameraman was responding in shock, and freeze-frames of violence which capture the style of photo-reportage.

With these techniques, Watkins challenged documentary conventions, paralleled the filmmaker's view with the presence within the action of a biased observing historian, and showed the deficiencies of mainstream historical drama. He also provocatively questioned national and historical myth - unpicking the romantic picture of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' - and of the British military. However, Culloden was also politically radical on levels beyond its historical setting. It questioned the brutal means by which the British establishment preserved itself and, as an allegorical piece on war and state genocide, had a timeless relevance; indeed, reviewers of Culloden's American debut in 1969 drew from its portrayal of 'pacification' a comment on the Vietnam War.

Watkins' only success in challenging a mass television audience in Britain, Culloden was successful enough to enable him to make The War Game, the project he had first suggested on the nuclear deterrent - with dramatic results.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. Introducing the combatants (3:57)
2. In the thick of battle (5:14)
3. A desert called peace (3:18)
Production stills
Watkins, Peter (1935-)
Drama Documentary