Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Peter Watkins' Culloden

Flicking through the TV channels at the weekend, we were surprised to stumble across a screening of an amazing documentary, Peter Watkins' Culloden from 1964, which BBC4 had dug up from the archives.

What a brilliant, compelling film. It dissects the 1746 Battle of Culloden, but it's no dry historical account. Watkins shot it like a docudrama, as if a war reporter had entered the battlefield with a hand-held camera and was interviewing people from both sides of the conflict. Despite the lack of modern 'special effects' - or the fact that you don't actually see a lot of the violence - it was brutal and shocking, perhaps because Watkins captures the psychology of warfare so beautifully, gaining first-hand accounts from everyone - from the Duke of Cumberland (pictured above left) to the individual clansmen and their families.

If Watkins does come down somewhat heavily on the side of the Highlanders - butchered indiscriminately by the English, even after the conflict was over - it's an impressive work because it takes away the romantic notions of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' and replaces them with the horrors of real war. What makes Watkins' film such a masterpiece is that you're no longer learning about history, as from a distance, but somehow inside the conflict in the most visceral way possible. I'm very interested in the Jacobites (and am writing about the '45) but have never seen anything like this before.

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Halldor said...

But of course, the soldiers doing the "butchering" were predominantly lowland Scots, and a few of the opposing Highland clans too - it's a common error that they were "English". Like Watkins says in the documentary, more Scots fought in the Hanoverian army at Culloden than in the Jacobite ranks.

Mrs Woffington said...

Good point; I so wish I hadn't missed the start of that docudrama and also the preceding 'making of' documentary. Time to get it on DVD perhaps?

Mrs Woffington said...

Actually it's too expensive on DVD but I've ordered John Prebble's book Culloden instead!