In April 1746 Scotland’s Jacobite army – exhausted, starving, and on the run – was intercepted by the British royal army on a sodden field near Inverness known as Culloden. Over the subsequent hour, the rebel forces were savaged by British cannon fire and cavalry, the anti-English uprising collapsed, and the rebellion itself was permanently shattered. It was the last civil battle in British history – and a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland’s independence struggle.
In 1964 the BBC produced a 69-minute docu-drama titled Culloden, which was directed by filmmaker Peter Watkins. Its innovative structure and creative production enable it to stand out as an outstanding work even now, well over 50 years since it was first produced.
Culloden re-creates the historic battle. It is shot on location in grainy and miserable black-and-white. It is populated with non-professional actors from nearby Inverness as well as lowland Scotland and London. The cast are dressed in historically accurate outfits and uniforms, and made up with all manner of wounds, pox scars, sunburn and fatigue. Simulating the battle and its participants would be striking enough – but then Watkins adds a television news crew.
The crew walk among both sides of the battle before it starts, conducting on-the-spot interviews with both infantry and command. Individuals are profiled, and the layout of the battlefield is explained. When the battle begins, camera operators are embedded in the field capturing the carnage as it plays out. It is a deeply weird innovation but bizarrely it works incredibly well. For one thing it is a remarkable method of providing historical detail: all of the participants profiled were real human beings. For another, it gives the film a contemporary edge. It adds immediacy, realism and – most critically – a solid frame of reference. It is easy for historical events to become abstract, and separated from any sense of consequence or humanity. Here Watkins shoves it in the viewers face: when a man is disembowelled by cannon fire, the audience knows that it was a real person who died in that fashion. As the bodies pile up, Watkins’ approach makes the human cost feel raw and deeply tragic.
It is not a film that pulls its punches, either. While the constraints of 1960s television limit the impact of the cannons, the close-up slaughter with swords and bayonets is deeply impactful and vivid. It is arguably the most violent production the BBC staged during the 1960s. The full tragedy of Culloden is frankly and bluntly expressed. Both the perverse incompetence of the Jacobite leadership and the horrifying brutality of the lowland and English soldiers are clearly laid-out and expressed. What begins as a strangely comedic presentation grows increasingly bleak, extending beyond the battle itself and into the terrible retribution served on the Scottish people by the advancing British army.
Through his unique presentation, Watkins develops a method to fully express the horror of 18th century conflict. The slightly complex political background is readily explained. Individuals such as Prince Charles Stuart, the heavily mythologised “Bonnie Prince Charlie” of Scottish folklore, are unflinchingly and critically detailed. The years may age Culloden, but this is a canny and vital documentary that refuses to date.