An evocative and visceral Peter Watkins double bill gets a handsome Blu-ray and DVD release this week, courtesy of the British Film Institute. Culloden and the Academy Award winning The War Game, a pair of docu-dramas blending re-enactment with fact, represent some of the most progressive and shocking television created in this country. Watkins’ influential work remains as fascinating and rewarding to this day, and this offering from the BFI is more than worth a watch for anyone interested in ground-breaking television.

Culloden, the first of these two documentary features, reconstructs the brutal and disastrous final battle of the Jacobite rising. Watkins approaches the subject matter as a contemporary journalist would any modern-day battle, in effect, taking his camera back in time and dropping into the midst of the bloodshed. The documentary emphasises on-the-field interviews with commanders and enlisted men to ensure the sense of humanity is not lost when dealing with an event that occurred some 270 years ago, and contributions from an on-site historian give the effect that the battle is taking place before a broadcast news crew. It’s a technique that’s so astonishingly simple and effective it would go on to inform a ceaseless slew of History and Discovery Channel documentaries for decades; much to the joy of history nerds, World War aficionados and collectors of dubious memorabilia. The subject matter has not lost any of its relevance or potency after half a century, with Watkins paying attention to the issues of post-battle crime, civil liberties and the perennial issue of unity (or lack thereof) in these United Kingdoms.

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The War Game follows and with it a startlingly bleak look at the effects of nuclear war in England. Produced partly as a response to the lack of robustly anti-nuclear weapons programming on the BBC, Watkins found himself in all manner of trouble upon its completion. The BBC feared the finished product would be too upsetting and problematic for broadcast, with Mediawatch founder Mary Whitehouse calling on its suppression for fear of undermining the public spirit. Although it was screened for the press and invited guests, the documentary was effectively buried by the BBC with the spurious justification that it lacked sufficient artistic merit. Watkins was eventually vindicated when it went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1967.

As with Culloden, Watkins makes use of a mixture of actors and non-actors as he contextualises and illuminates the consequences of a hypothetical bombing of Kent. It’s a combination of re-enactment, talking heads vox pops and test-based factual information that, in some respects, paved for the way for the public information films of the 60’s and 70’s. Watkins builds his story on the back of testimony from first-hand accounts of survivors of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, giving the drama an effective, if distressing, sense of legitimacy. Watkins punctuates the drama with extracts from contemporary advice pamphlets, skewering and undermining their near-useless or bloody-minded wisdom to accentuate his pro-peace message.

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This pair of outstanding documentaries is joined on the disk by a clutch of excellent special features including commentary on both and a Culloden featurette. Perhaps most interesting though is the retrospective look at the almighty stink caused by The War Game at that time of  its creation. Watching it, you find yourself more appreciative that, in Peter Watkins, we have a filmmaker unafraid to question and criticise even as he innovates.

5 / 5

 

Culloden

Dir: Peter Watkins

Scr: Peter Watkins 

Prd: Peter Watkins

DOP: Dick Bush

Country: UK

Year: 1964 

Run time: 69 mins

 

 

The War Game

Dir: Peter Watkins

Scr: Peter Watkins

Prd: Peter Watkins

DOP: Peter Bartlett

Country: UK

Year: 1965

Run time: 48 mins