Review of "Culloden + The War Game (Blu-ray)"

published 04/07/2016 | hogsflesh
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Excellent
Pro Both films are very good
Cons Perhaps the low budget is a minor problem in Culloden
exceptional
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"An enormous door slamming in the depths of hell"

A mutilated highlander (Culloden)

A mutilated highlander (Culloden)

This dual format Blu-ray + DVD release is currently a mere £11 on amazon.

This is a very welcome Blu-ray (and DVD) release of two classic BBC films from the 60s. Both were available on DVD in the early 2000s, but both went out of print and were difficult to come by (I had to resort to a French-Canadian DVD to find Culloden). Now, finally, they’re accessible in a better format, and cheaper as a pair than either was to buy individually.

Peter Watkins was a radical young filmmaker who only made two films for the BBC. The second was deemed so potentially controversial that the Beeb refused to show it for 20 years (in spite of its having received a limited cinema release in the States and winning the 1967 Oscar for Best Documentary!). Watkins quit the BBC, and indeed the UK, and went on to make films that are rigorously left wing and often impossible to see (although three others are available on Blu-ray now, so the tide is running in Watkins’ favour).

Culloden (1964)

This is the less well known of the two, but in its day it was a big hit (albeit at a time when there were only two channels on TV), and got the kind of serious critical attention that had hitherto been denied television.

The Battle of Culloden (1746) was the last battle fought on British soil. It saw the end of the Jacobite rebellion, where the Catholic Prince Charles Edward Stuart (affectionately known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) attempted to overthrow the Protestant King George II. As ever when kings have a family squabble like this, it’s the peasants who suffer. Charles’s army, mostly formed of Scottish highlanders, invaded England and won a couple of battles before being forced back to Scotland where they were finally routed at Culloden. The battle became a byword for savagery, with the Hanoverian general, the Duke of Cumberland, earning the nickname ‘the Butcher’. The highland Scots were brutally suppressed afterwards by the English in what the film would have us believe was an act of ethnic cleansing (I don’t know enough about it to know whether that is right or not).

Watkins's film re-enacts the battle and its aftermath using amateur actors. Historical documentaries these days throw in scenes of reconstruction all the time, but it must have been quite new and daring in 1964. Matter-of-fact narration is provided, but we never cut away to talking heads or text or other typical documentary features. A contemporary historian who was present at the battle is represented (in period costume), with his biased commentary occasionally shown to be at odds with the voiceover.

It's a very angry documentary, and is obviously designed to shock and perhaps enrage viewers. This is an odd approach to take, especially for a film about a battle that took place so long ago. But we're obviously being gently encouraged to read parallels to more recent events into the way the highland Scots were persecuted and eventually effectively eradicated. It's presented as an act of naked colonial aggression, which probably had a bit more resonance in the 1960s, when we still had quite a bit of empire. (The battle had also been the subject of a popular history book by historian John Prebble, so might have been on people’s minds a bit more than it is today.)

While the film is even-handed in its condemnation of the exploitation of the common people on both sides of the war, there's no question that its sympathies overall lie with the rebellious Scots. Not the Prince himself, who is portrayed as a drunken amateur with a staggeringly callous attitude to his troops' welfare. But the soldiers dragged into his service suffered appalling privations and were massacred for a cause they probably didn’t fully understand, or care about. The English soldiers were also drafted against their will in most cases, but as the victors, they get to take savage reprisals against their defeated foes, their families and their property. (This isn’t an anti-English screed, though – there’s little doubt the Scots would have behaved just as badly had they won. This is an anti-aristocracy, anti-colonial, anti-war screed, and a very effective one.)

It's very cheap, of course. There are rarely more than about 20 people visible onscreen at any time. The fight scenes wobble the camera a lot and do plenty of edits in order to try to hide the fundamental lack of soldiers, but they can't really succeed. But the film has such a tone of high-minded seriousness that it works in spite of this. It almost dares you to laugh at the rather shambolic battle scenes – it’s one of the most po-faced films I’ve ever seen, which is what makes it work.

The amateur cast are very good, and stoically endure what were evidently some very rainy days of shooting. Occasionally the pursuit of historical accuracy distracts from the message a bit - there were times when I found myself staring transfixed at people's horrible blackened teeth or facial scars rather than listening to what they were saying. But that's probably what was intended, so it's fine.

It's perhaps a bit too long, and it's difficult to get as enraged by the situation as I suspect I'm meant to – it was an awfully long time ago. But Culloden is definitely worth watching today. It’s part of TV history, but apart from being in black and white and not featuring any swearing, it feels quite modern.

The War Game (1965)

Good though Culloden is, The War Game is in a different league - I think it's one of the best films I've ever seen. It explores what might have happened in Britain in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of a nuclear war. Although it's dealing in hypotheticals, in things that never happened, it's still one of the most gruelling films I've ever sat through.

While it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, there's some question about whether it really is one. Although there are talking heads and scrolling text, and an offscreen narrator (Michael Aspel in parts of the film), most of the film is shot like Culloden, re-enacting scenes using amateur actors. But is a re-enactment of something that never took place really a documentary?

It's certainly one of the least impartial films I've ever seen. It's clearly designed to make anyone who sees it very angry indeed at the madness of the nuclear 'deterrent'. It claims that in the event of a serious crisis it would have been NATO who would most likely have fired first, and shows how woefully unprepared the UK's civil defence was to cope with nuclear war. (In fact, the film is arguably a bit optimistic - I doubt nearly as many people would have survived as do in the film.)

It's incredibly powerful stuff, even though the situation it shows never happened. The most famous horrors are the bucket full of wedding rings taken from the dead, and the police firing squad executing alleged looters. But for me the most horrendous moment is the slow, seemingly endless pan over the faces of a row of dead women, which is incredibly convincing and directly evokes newsreel footage from the second world war. The firestorm sequence is also very well done, especially considering that the budget can't have been much bigger than that of Culloden. The narration, telling us of how nuclear explosions will melt our eyeballs or cause our cars to explode with us inside them, adds to the horror of it all by remaining dry and calm in tone, like a typical BBC documentary.

The film often counterpoints overly optimistic little quotes from the government or the church with what would actually happen. You can feel the anger shining through. But I find the small, hopeless human moments more effective. The amateur cast are often remarkably good, especially the nurse who starts choking up when describing the casualties. There are moments that have stayed with me since I first saw it about ten years ago.

The BBC refused to show it, scared of appearing critical of the government's defence policy. Harold Wilson's government is believed to have leaned on the Beeb. This is potentially tragic - the BBC had the ability to genuinely influence public opinion (Ken Loach's film for the BBC, Cathy Come Home, led to a hugely increased public awareness of homelessness and the setting up of the charity Crisis). This could have doubled CND membership overnight. Which is probably why it was suppressed.

The War Game is a difficult watch even 50 years on, when the threat of nuclear war has receded in the public mind. It was finally shown on TV in the 80s, when a new splurge of Cold War brinkmanship brought the threat of war closer to the public consciousness again (the BBC made the unwatchably bleak series Threads at around the same time). It is a masterpiece – and only 40 minutes long!
Blu-ray

The picture quality on both of the films is very good. Fortunately they were shot entirely on film, unlike a lot of BBC programmes, which mixed film and video. Because they were filmed cheaply they will never look like Casablanca or Psycho, but these probably look better than they ever have before.

The main extras are commentaries by experts – the Culloden pone talks a lot about another Watkins film, The Commune, which doesn’t seem to be available, so it was a bit frustrating for that reason. The War Game one is better. There’s also a piece about the suppression of the War Game, and an essay on the subject in the booklet that comes with the release.

Watkins isn’t the most easy-going director, and his work is only now becoming easier to get hold of. His film Punishment Park is similarly traumatic, and similarly essential viewing. Just to prove he wasn't just an angry leftie, he also made a stunningly good biopic of the artist Edvard Munch, not a man who was known for his rampant jollity. Both those films are available on Blu-ray as part of Eureka's Master of Cinema series. But The War Game is probably his masterpiece, and to get it on an inexpensive Blu-ray, along with Culloden, is fantastic.

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Comments on this review

  • snow_drops published 16/11/2016
    E from me!
  • danielclark691 published 14/11/2016
    well reviewed
  • IzzyS published 13/11/2016
    Thorough review.
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Product Information : Culloden + The War Game (Blu-ray)

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Product Details

Sub Genre: Historical

Director(s): Peter Watkins

DVD Region: DVD

EAN: 5035673012468

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