CULLODEN (Peter Watkins, 1964)

Peter Watkins was not yet thirty when he revolutionized the genre of historical documentary, thus becoming one of the most influential serious filmmakers, with Culloden, whose form expands the creative and expressive possibilities of the genre, for example, by its interviews/testimonies of participants in the 1746 battle at Culloden between rag-tag Highland Scots, French-supported Jacobites attempting to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne, and the well-heeled Hanoverian English army and Lowland accomplices. We are there; we see for ourselves and keenly feel the horrible suffering that war, that armed confrontation, entails. Equally vivid, gut-wrenching in fact, is the post-battle slaughter of Highland families, including women and children.
     Impoverished clansmen have been forced into, for them, the “suicidal” Battle of Culloden with threats by landowners of losing their rented homes and other meager property. Some leaders, though, are motivated by the fact that Charles Edward Stuart is, like them, Catholic; they hope he replaces Britain’s Protestant king. (“God is on our side,” Stuart insists, thus believing he will prevail despite the fact that his army is outnumbered, out-armed.) After his defeat, we are told, Stuart abandoned his cause and those who had fought for it, numbers of whom awaited his return indefinitely, creating a glowing legend around “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
     Voiceover—Watkins?—provides a wealth of factual detail. Soldiers and their outcomes—deaths; maimings—are identified. We discover for ourselves how the winning general, the Duke of Cumberland, King George II’s son, acquired the nickname “Butcher.”
     Surely this black-and-white film owes something to John Huston’s on-the-spot World War II documentary, San Pietro (1945), but, set in the past with unknown actors in the roles of combatants and other victims of the English massacre, Culloden is also unlike any film I know of before it.

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