The War Game and Culloden (1964 & 1965)

“The blast from a thermonuclear explosion has been likened to an enormous door slamming in the depths of hell.”

In the 1960s, director Peter Watkins made two films for the BBC–The War Game and Culloden. Both docudramas, The War Game was so controversial, it never made it to the screen, but was instead banned. The British government’s policy under Churchill was that any television programme on the subject of nuclear war should not be “defeatist.” Interesting attitude….I suppose the only way not to be defeatist about nuclear war is to be the country dropping the bomb with no thought of the consequences. But The War Game presents Britain under nuclear attack. It’s impossible to present people falling like flies on a scorched planet, subject to the cruelest wounds possible and still keep an upbeat attitude.

The War Game shows exactly how pathetically futile it is try to prepare for a nuclear war. Watkins is not concerned with sparing the feelings of his audience, and here he shows graphically, and matter-of-factly exactly what happens to humans caught in a nuclear blast. Various subjects are interviewed as Watkins shows how the country would react under emergency conditions. There are those who vainly and rather smugly hope a couple of sand bags will save them, and then there’s the fate of the injured and dying as the numbers of casualties overwhelm available medical staff. With its merciless, uncomfortable vision, it’s no wonder this film was banned rather than aired. After all, why alert the average British citizen to the horrors of nuclear war?

The second film, Culloden is basically a reenactment of the last battle on British soil, the infamous battle of Culloden in 1746 which pitted the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie against the Duke of Cumberland, the son of George II who defended the Hanoverian crown. Watkins defies time once again as he interviews many of the battle’s ‘participants.’ The incompetence of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s commanders (whose men had not eaten or slept for several days before the battle) is clear. Also examined is the disagreement between the various commanders regarding the selection of Culloden field as a suitable battleground. But what is particularly remarkable about the film is how Watkins captures the hierarchy among the troops. While the commanders possess various lands and wealth, they force peasants who possess at best–a cow–to participate in their war. So on one hand, there’s amazing privilege, and on the other hand, there’s devastating poverty.

The battle is reconstructed and detailed. Its brutal, and shameful aftermath is also covered, and by the film’s end, Bonnie Prince Charlie escapes unscathed to the palaces of Europe, while the peasants–who stood to gain absolutely nothing from a change of monarch, and were forced at threat of death to participate, are left to pay the price for another’s ambition and thirst for power. While Culloden is an anti-war film, it’s most certainly not a traditional format, and instead questions the nature of power, hierarchy and obedience. While these two films share a common theme of exposing crimes against humanity (the possible and the historical), they both possess remarkably unemotional delivery, and this detached tone increases the horrors of what we see. Excellent. DVD extra features include: 2 full length commentaries for The War Game, and a 12-page booklet which includes background information about the film.

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Filed under British, Peter Watkins, Political/social films

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