Culloden/The War Game
This dual-format release of Peter Watkins's two films for the BBC is released at the same time as two releases comprising six of Ken Russell's BBC films from the Sixties (The Great Composers and The Great Passions). While that's no doubt a coincidence of restoration, production and release schedules, the two men's careers have notable similarities and notable differences. Born in the south of England eight years apart (Russell in Southampton, Watkins in Norbiton), both entered the BBC after attracting attention with amateur films. (Watkins's The Diary of an Unknown Soldier and The Forgotten Faces are available as extras on the BFI Flipside release of Privilege.) And both, while on the face of it making documentaries, blurred the lines between that and drama in their different ways, provoking controversy as a result. In a wider context, both are part of an incredibly rich period of television drama: Ken Loach (also one to use documentary techniques in drama) was working for the BBC at the time, and writers like Dennis Potter and David Mercer were active and prolific.
Watkins began work for the BBC in 1962 as a production assistant for Huw Wheldon, then the Head of Documentary and who had given Russell his start by making short films for the arts magazine Monitor. In a memo to Wheldon, Watkins suggested a list of topics that he wanted to make films on. Top of the list was "The Nuclear Film", based on a longtime idea of his about a group of people in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Wheldon thought that that was too risky a subject for someone making their first professional film but gave Watkins the go-ahead for the second on his list, a documentary-style reconstruction of the last battle to take place on British soil, the Battle of Culloden of 1746.
The title card comes up two minutes in, and is followed by a rolling caption which leaves us in no doubt as to where the film's sympathies lie. To a loud drumbeat: "An account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain. An account of its tragic aftermath. An account of the men responsible for it. An account of the men, women and children who suffered because of it." Culloden's central conceit is that a contemporary news crew is there at the site of the battle, with many participants interviewed direct to camera. This wasn't new: the US series You Are There had done a similar thing between 1953 and 1957, with well-known news anchor Walter Cronkite reporting from several historical events. (You Are There was repeated on the BBC as late as 1973/4, when I saw some of them). On the surface, Watkins (the uncredited narrator and occasional interviewer in the field) does much the same thing. But Culloden is informed by ideas in filmmaking which were moving into the mainstream. One was Jean-Luc Godard's comments that drama and documentary are closer than they may appear: drama is recording real people and real places, so that's a documentary act, and a documentary is as edited and shaped as any drama. (For a major-studio American film from later in the decade influenced by this, see Medium Cool.) Another influence, beginning in the theatre (and Watkins had a theatrical background, having been a RADA student and working with the Playcraft acting group of Canterbury, who had helped him out in his amateur films) were that of Bertolt Brecht and his "alienation effect", highlighting the fact that the audience is watching a constructed film rather than becoming "lost" in the drama, and inviting the audience to assess critically what is put in front of it rather than passively consume it. This is often done for overtly political ends, and that's very much the case here. Watkins draws attention to his artifice to expose the incompetence of the generals and the suffering caused not just to the men strongarmed into fighting but the women and children raped and slaughtered in the aftermath of the battle. Using non-professional actors, none of them credited on screen (including some he knew from Playcraft), Watkins time and again breaches an unwritten rule of documentary by having someone look directly into the camera, revealing a strong eye for the expressiveness of faces (not to mention a considerable ability in directing amateur actors), something he would continue with in The War Game. Kudos go to Watkins's very experienced cameraman, Dick Bush (the film was shot mostly handheld, on 16mm film) and his editor, Michael Bradsell, whom Watkins particularly singled out for praise. This film was made on a tiny budget, but the battle scenes are shot and edited in such a way as to disguise the fact that Watkins had only a few extras to hand. The sequence, taking up the middle section of the film's 69 minutes (roughly the length of the battle in reality), is so viscerally filmed that it risks undermining the production's very intention: you do get caught up in it.
It was apparent as soon as the film was available for viewing that the BBC and Wheldon in particular had something quite special on its hands. It was shown on the main channel, BBC1, at 8.05pm on a Tuesday night, prime time indeed, on 15 December 1964, in between an episode of the long-running soap Compact and the News. Its impact was considerable, and it had a rapid repeat on BBC2 on 31 January 1965. It featured as part of "Festival 40", a season of "outstanding and memorable programmes" repeated in 1976 for BBC Television's fortieth anniversary. I first saw it on its next showing, on 14 April 1996, which marked the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the battle. It was released on DVD in 2002, but Blu-ray enables this film-originated production to be seen in far higher resolution than the 405 lines its original audience saw it in.
Meanwhile, Wheldon, with some hesitation, gave Watkins his consent to go ahead with his Nuclear Film.
The War Game (46:21)
Although it's twenty-three minutes shorter than Culloden, The War Game has a similar structure to its predecessor: after a documentary-style introduction with animated diagrams about nuclear arms proliferation (given even more authority by the tones of longtime BBC announcer and presenter Michael Aspel) the first act, including arms buildups and compulsory relocation of women and children, is a preamble to the depiction of the nuclear attack which takes up the second act. The final part deals with the aftermath. Again Watkins asks us to consider the artifice of his creation: this is explicitly what could happen as a result of a limited nuclear attack, taking place as it does in the very near future: it begins on 16 September, a Friday, so could take place in 1966. It could, the narration says, have happened by the year 1980. But as with Culloden, the result is so effective that it risks undermining itself, and you can't help but be caught up in this as a drama – and a harrowing one it is. It was undoubtedly even more so at the time. Watkins, born 1935, grew up during the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war, with hydrogen bombs considerably more powerful than the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a very real one. In fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis three years earlier had almost brought about World War Three. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had been founded in 1957 and the first march on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston had taken place the following year.
Watkins shot The War Game in April 1965, again using non-professional actors and once more showing how powerful a facial close-up can be. Only the two narrators (Aspel and Dick Graham) are credited: there are many rumours that Brian Cox and Kathy Staff are among the then amateur actors seen on screen. The film was completed by September. By then, it was being discussed at the highest levels of the BBC and questioned if it could be shown at all. No doubt they were concerned on the possible effects of such a traumatising film on especially people at home on their own, but it was no doubt politically sensitive, especially in showing how inadequate civil defence would be in the face of such an attack. Some cuts were made, but others Watkins refused to make, such as a later scene showing British soldiers executing looters by firing squad. The BBC, while nominally independent on the government, though reliant on them for its funding in the form of the licence fee, referred the film to them and the decision was made that the film should not be shown. And so it was banned and it remained banned by the BBC for twenty years.
The film did not disappear though. It had showings in February 1966 to invited audiences at the National Film Theatre. While the BBC clearly hoped that these showings would back up their decision not to show the film, whose suppression had by now made headlines, but that was not always the case. Some commentors, such as Kenneth Tynan, thought it one of the most important films ever made. On 1 March 1966 The War Game was passed with a X certificate – restricting it to those aged sixteen or over – in what may have been a slightly shortened version (44:27 according to the BBFC) and went on to a cinema release distributed by the British Film Institute. In 1967 it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. As a result of the controversy, Watkins left the BBC. He made one film for a major studio, Privilege, but since then has made films in other countries, outside mainstream film production structures and, especially in the case of the fourteen-hour The Journey and the six-hour The Commune, mainstream distribution structures as well. As a result many of them are not easy to see, though Punishment Park and Edvard Munch are available on DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema line.
Meanwhile, The War Game remained unshown by the BBC. However, the US TV movie The Day After had been shown on ITV in 1983 and the BBC's own Threads followed in 1984, both in colour and taking advantage of twenty years' advance in special effects and makeup. So questions were asked, could The War Game not be shown? Perhaps by now it was dated – which may have been true of some of the facts and figures cited during it, but only superficially so – and was of course in black and white. (You could argue that that's actually an enhancement – it may be one reason why Lilias Munro's makeup is so convincing even now.) Finally, it was shown, on BBC2 on 31 July 1985, with an introduction by Ludovic Kennedy, as part of a series of programmes marking the fortieth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that was my first viewing of it. It has not been shown again, as of the time of writing.
Culloden and The War Game were originally released separately on DVD, long-since deleted. The present dual-format release comprises a Blu-ray and a PAL DVD, encoded for Regions B and 2 respectively. This review is from a checkdisc of the Blu-ray. Many of the extras from the original releases have been brought forward to this new release. The 12 certificate applies to both films, and I would suggest that parents of younger children take it seriously.
Both films were shot in black and white 16mm, and the transfers maintain the correct 1.33:1 ratio, as you would expect from a 1960s television production. Given that they were intended to be viewed on PAL television sets, they were shot at twenty-five frames per second instead of the cinematic twenty-four, so the Blu-ray transfers (at 2K resolution from the original negatives) are 1080i50 to maintain the correct speed, though there is no music score needing to remain in pitch. Culloden looks remarkably good. The War Game has always had a "dirty" grainy look, though while some of that may be intentional it may also be due to laboratory conditions. Even so, this is the best that both have looked, given that the original showing of Culloden would have been at 405 lines and later repeat showings and the one showing of The War Game would have been at 625.
The soundtrack is the original mono in both cases, rendered as LPCM 2.0 on the Blu-ray. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available.
The commentaries from the 2002 DVDs have been brought forward: by John Cook for Culloden and Patrick Murphy for The War Game. Both are very informative with few dead spots.
John Cook also narrates Culloden on Location (7:44), mute film (in colour 8mm) taken during the shooting of the film by Donald Fairservice, a BBC colleague of Watkins who acted in the film. Also brought forward from the 2002 release is The War Game Controversy (18:35). Patrick Murphy here talks further about the banning and future showings of the film, as a commentary track over selected scenes. New for this release is an interview with Michael Bradsell, the editor of both of these films (20:50). He also worked with Ken Russell, and is interviewed on both of those discs. Bradsell talks about how he first met with Watkins – describing him as a man with more of a sense of humour than you might expect from his films. They worked together while Watkins was a production assistant and Watkins asked him to edit Culloden and he went on to perform the same duties for The War Game. It was his suggestion to have a section of the film bleached and in negative to convey the heat of the blast. Also on the disc is a reproduction of the book published in 1967 to accompany the film, as a stills gallery.
The twenty-six-page booklet includes an essay on Culloden by David Archibald and The War Game by John Cook. There are notes on the extras, a six-page Watkins biography by William Fowler, credits for both films and transfer/restoration notes.