Two of Peter Watkins’ blisteringly brutal black and white anti-war films get a new release on this dual format Blu-ray and DVD set courtesy of the BFI.
CULLODEN (1964) reconstructs the last battle to take place on British soil (between the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart and the loyalist forces commanded by the Duke of Cumberland) on 16th April 1746. The opening narration prepares us for what is to come, as the narrator introduces us to the Jacobite military command: “Sir Thomas Sheridan, Jacobite military secretary. Suffering advanced debility and loss of memory. Former military engagement, 56 years ago. Sir John MacDonald, Jacobite captain of cavalry. Aged, frequently intoxicated, described as 'a man of the most limited capacities.' John William O'Sullivan, Jacobite quartermaster general. Described as 'an Irishman whose vanity is superseded only by his lack of wisdom.' Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite commander in chief. Former military experience: 10 days at a siege at the age of 13."
After that it comes as little surprise that the opening titles inform us that, as well as being the last, this was one of the most ineptly executed battles in British history. The film could stop there, its message told, but instead, for the next hour or so, we see in grim detail just how ghastly the battle of Culloden was. At the time the idea of treating it as an ‘on the spot’ TV docudrama was revolutionary, and even though the format has been used since, nobody does it quite like Watkins. CULLODEN is a brutal and exhausting piece of television, and you may well need to watch something cheery after it.
You certainly won’t want to go straight on to THE WAR GAME (1965) unless you really want to give your nerves a battering. This infamous docudrama was intended for broadcast on the BBC but banned for being too shocking. It deals, like the later THREADS (1984) which followed it, with the concept of what a nuclear strike on Britain might look like, the damage that would be caused, and how those who survived might (fail to) cope. Still tremendously effective, television doesn’t get much grimmer or bleaker than this, although if you still aren’t sufficiently depressed and / or terrified then by all means pop THREADS in the player to make a triple bill of ‘War Is Hell’.
The BFI’s new release comes with a number of extras. Both films have commentaries - CULLODEN by John Cook and WAR GAME by Patrick Murphy. There’s also a short interview with editor Michael Bradsell (who also worked on the Ken Russell documentaries just released by the BFI), as well as eight minutes of colour footage of CULLODEN’s location shooting, and a nineteen minute film about the controversy that surrounded THE WAR GAME. The 1967 Sphere paperback that was published to accompany THE WAR GAME is also included and is a very valuable record indeed of a now difficult to find publication. Finally, there’s the usual excellent booklet with new writing on both films.
The BFI are releasing Peter Watkins' CULLODEN and THE WAR GAME on a single dual format DVD & Blu-ray set on 28th March 2016