“War is partly madness, mostly insanity, and the rest of it schizophrenia.”
Though he dislikes the term, Donald McCullin is best known as a war photographer. From the early sixties through to the early eighties he reported from numerous war zones, initially for the Observer and primarily for the Sunday Times Magazine. During that time took pictures in Cyprus, the Republic of Biafra, the Congo, Northern Ireland and Lebanon and made a staggering 16 trips to Vietnam. He also captured subjects as diverse as the Beatles and America’s Deep South, yet it is his photographs of war which have lingered the longest. McCullin, a new documentary from brother and sister team Jacqui and David Morris, takes us through his remarkable career, creating a portrait that is both as candid and emotionally heavyweight as his finest work.
The Morrises favour a simplistic approach. McCullin, now in his seventies, is filmed on a 16mm camera with a minimal crew and it is his words which prove so central to the film. In fact, the only other interviewee is Sir Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times between 1967 and 1981, with all of the remaining footage either sourced from various archives or, of course, from McCullin’s own pictures. We start at the beginning with his first published work, a series of shots of Finsbury Park gang members which appeared in the Observer in 1959, and slowly progress through the years to take in the key assignments, the key conflicts and the key photographs.
Essentially, McCullin plays out as a series of anecdotes, some of which are far more substantial than others. Intertitles provide the relevant context, if necessary, and then we’re straight into the discussion of relevant pictures. Thus ‘Cambodia 1970’ will pop up onscreen or ‘Northern Ireland 1971’, almost like chapter headings, and McCullin will relate a few tales. Needless to say, given the kind of life he had during the sixties and seventies, the stories are always fascinating. During the Congo crisis, for example, he managed to convince the CIA that he was a mercenary in order to gain access to the very heart of the conflict – the sheer audacity of his act seemingly saved his life once his real identity was revealed. He also relates appalling memories of witnessing extreme famine first hand or the shocking conditions of a hospital for the mentally ill at the time of the first Lebanese war. Of course, that shock is captured in many of the images he took (as well as the other archive footage which peppers the film) so do be warned that McCullin hardly makes for easy viewing.
Yet the Morrises are not simply intent on documenting the various war zones McCullin visited. Their film is as much a portrait of the man himself as it is a record of two decades’ worth of wars and disturbances. Importantly McCullin is repeatedly honest about his own position: he acknowledges the excitement and the “big chances” his commissions provided, though he’s also keen to point out that he never a mere voyeur. Countless times he put down his camera so as to aid the wounded or transport them to the nearest hospital. On only one occasion does he feel that he overstepped the mark, when taking the picture of a grieving widow who promptly attacked him. Oftentimes the cost went much further, resulting in injuries, broken bones being shot and the falling apart of his marriage. You sense an ambivalence about his chosen profession – it’s both a drug and a burden. As he puts it, “My darkroom is a haunted place.”
This focus on the personal helps to keep McCullin sufficiently streamlined. If a particular commission strays too far from this particular path – recording poverty in Bradford, for example, or providing the pictures which prove so integral to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup – then they don’t receive a mention. As such McCullin may feel a little hard done by inasmuch as his work as a war photographer takes a clear prominence, but then it also ensures that the documentary prompts a suitably emotional response. It’s particularly interesting to compare McCullin to recent cinematic portraits of photojournalists and war reporters such as The Bang Bang Club (based on the life of Kevin Carter and three others operating in the South African townships towards the end of Apartheid), 5 Days of War (a fictional effort set during the 2008 South Ossetia war) and The Hunting Party (loosely inspired by an Esquire article about events in Sarajevo in 2000). Each of these films tries to capture that same blend of the excitement and drug-like quality of being in a war zone and the stark realities they present. And yet, in each case, it also feels somewhat laboured. McCullin, on the other hand, does so effortlessly and it’s the much better picture as a result.
McCullin comes to UK Blu-ray courtesy of Artificial Eye. The decision to go for a HD release was surely an immediate one so as to do full justice to McCullin’s remarkable photographs. They come across in a suitably impressive fashion thanks to an excellent transfer. As said there’s a great deal of archive footage in the film so the quality does waver – interlaced excerpts from Parkinson, black and white materials that seem to have been sourced from YouTube given the excessive compression blocking – though none of these issues can be blamed on the disc itself. The newly recorded interviews, captured on 16mm, look terrific and come with expected shimmer of grain. The soundtrack is available in both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM Stereo options and presents no problems. Once again some of the archive footage comes with inherent flaws, but the newly recorded material and the musical choices are as crisp and clear as you would expect. There are no optional subtitles, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise.
Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and 24 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes. As with the main feature these are separated into intertitled chapters and focus, primarily, on McCullin’s UK-shot work. He talks about the Finsbury Park of his youth, reminisces about being an evacuee during the Second World War and shows some remarkable photographs of poverty-stricken families in Bradford. There’s plenty to interest here though do be aware that the presentation quality isn’t of a similar calibre to the main feature (complete with the occasional fluffed aspect ratio).