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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Forward, into the past: A timely reissue of Peter Watkins’ Culloden ****

By Dennis Hartley

“For some time, [United Kingdom] constitutional nerds such as myself used to float this kind of nightmare scenario, in which one or more parts of the U.K such as Northern Ireland or Scotland [votes to stay in the E.U.], while England, being the largest group [votes to leave the E.U.]...basically those other parts of the U.K. are out-voted. […] Now this has actually happened; this isn’t a nightmare scenario any longer, it’s the reality.”  - Andrew Blick, lecturer in politics and contemporary history (on CNN, June 24, 2016).

There’s been a substantial amount of speculation among the chattering class over the last 36 hours regarding a possible “contagion effect” on the nations who remain allegiant to the European Union, following the U.K.’s voter-mandated breakaway this past Thursday.

While no one with a modicum of sense and/or logic is expecting World War III to break out next week as a result of the “Brexit” referendum decision, there remain a number of compelling historical reasons why the possibility of profound political and socioeconomic instability in Europe down the road is concerning to those who keep track of such things.

For a continent that encompasses a relatively modest 3,930,000 square miles altogether (for perspective, the United States by itself is 3,806,000 square miles in size), Europe has a densely complex history of political volatility, avarice-driven disputes, willful military aggressions and generations-spanning (ruling) family squabbles that boggles the mind.

I’m not saying we haven’t gotten our own hair mussed once or twice here in the good ‘ol U.S. of A; after all, 620,000 people died in the Civil War. That said, 17 million people died in World War I, and an estimated 60 million souls slipped the surly bonds of Earth in the course of World War II. Yes, those were “world” wars, but volatility in Europe was the primary impetus. I guess what I’m saying is, the fact that we have known the existence of a unified Europe in our lifetimes is a blessing that we have taken for granted.

However, as implied by the quote at the top of the post, what makes the Brexit decision even more fascinating to me is the possibility of the U.K. itself splintering apart eventually as a result. Which in effect would be history repeating itself, particularly in the case of Scotland, which voted almost overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the E.U. In fact, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has already announced a plan to keep Scotland in the E.U., as well as noting that drafts are in the works for legislation proposing another vote on Scottish independence from the U.K. (there was one in 2014).

To say that the history between England and Scotland is a “bloody” one would not be overstatement. Consider a particularly nasty bit of business generally referred to as the “Jacobite Uprising” or “The Forty-five Rebellion” (1745-1746). Depending on which historian you’re reading, the conflict was either a clan war betwixt Scottish lowlanders and highlanders, a religious civil war, or a Scottish war of independence against England. For the sake of expediency, I’m going to split the difference and call it “all of the above”.

The culmination of the conflict occurred on April 16, 1745 with the Battle of Culloden:

Towards one o'clock, the Jacobite artillery opened fire on government soldiers. The government responded with their own cannon, and the Battle of Culloden began. Bombarded by cannon shot and mortar bombs, the Jacobite clans held back, waiting for the order to attack. At last they moved forwards, through hail, smoke, murderous gunfire and grapeshot. Around eighty paces from their enemy they started to fire their muskets and charged. Some fought ferociously. Others never reached their goal. The government troops had finally worked out bayonet tactics to challenge the dreaded Highland charge and broadsword. The Jacobites lost momentum, wavered, then fled.  
Hardly an hour had passed between the first shots and the final flight of the Prince's army. Although a short battle by European standards, it was an exceptionally bloody one.
Culloden was not only “an exceptionally bloody” battle, but holds distinction as the last such pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Although the slaughter did not stop there:
After their victory, Cumberland ordered his men to execute all the Jacobite wounded and prisoners, an act by which he was known afterwards as "the Butcher." Certain higher-ranking prisoners did survive to be tried and executed later in Inverness. […]Immediately after the battle, Cumberland rode into Inverness, his drawn sword still covered in blood, a symbolic and menacing gesture. The following day, the slaughter continued, when patrols were sent back to the battlefield to kill any survivors; contemporary sources indicate that about 70 more Jacobites were killed as a result… 
[…] 3,470 Jacobites, supporters, and others were taken prisoner in the aftermath of Culloden, with 120 of them being executed and 88 dying in prison; 936 transported to the colonies, and 222 more "banished." While many were eventually released, the fate of nearly 700 is unknown.
The Rebellion left a profound cultural impact on Scotland as well. From the same article:
[The ’45 Rebellion] had enormous psychological impact upon the Highland Scots, and severe civil penalties thereafter (for example, it became a criminal offense to wear tartan plaid). What followed can be described as cultural vandalism, with the destruction of a way of life that many had found meaningful, giving them a sense of identity and kinship.
So how does this all tie in with the Brexit vote? In a well-written 2011 Daily Kos piece inspired by the (then) 265th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, OP OllieGarky notes:
Cameron and Thatcher's recent ruthlessness towards Scottish public institutions is nothing new. It is a pale relic of previous attempts to rebuild Scotland into a properly British province, according to whatever fashion the current leaders took. […] 
Culloden and its aftermath is an emotional issue for the Scottish Diaspora. Depending on your definition, how you include or exclude individuals from the Diaspora, the Diaspora outnumbers the population of Scotland by no less than 12 to one. This loss of people has been disastrous for Scotland in recent years, leading to the rise of the Scottish National Party. […] 
The Scottish Nationalists are Nationalists in name only. They don't espouse any of the ethnocentric bile typical of traditional Nationalist groups like the BNP, or White Nationalists in the US. Indeed, the music of Scottish Nationalism is disgusted with the ethnocentric ideas that are themselves an integral part of the BNP's British Nationalism, or its predecessor the National Front's English Nationalism.
It’s no secret that there was an undercurrent of anti-immigrant nativism streaking through rhetoric spouted by some of the high profile spokespersons in the “leave the E.U.” camp.
Which (finally) brings us to writer-director Peter Watkins’ largely forgotten, yet somewhat groundbreaking made-for BBC-TV docudrama from 1964 entitled Culloden. The film has been newly remastered for a beautifully-transferred “two-fer” (Region “B” only) Blu-ray release from BFI that also includes Watkins’ more well-known (and controversial) 1965 BBC docudrama The War Game (****), which is an unblinking, startlingly realistic envisioning of the after-effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Kent.
Truth be told, the primary reason I ordered the set was to snag a copy of The War Game; I was previously unaware of Culloden (it never aired outside of the U.K., unlike The War Game, which gained its higher profile from international cinematic distribution in 1966, subsequently earning it an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature back in 1967).
It is by pure kismet that I just happened to view Culloden for the first time about 2 weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind; otherwise I likely never would have connected this relatively obscure battle that took place 270 years ago with the results of the Brexit referendum just this past Thursday. At any rate, I was happy to discover this gem, which is very much in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. While he shares Kubrick’s eye for detail and neorealist capture of the horror of battle, Watkins does him one better:
(From David Archibald’s essay, written for the companion booklet to the BFI Blu-ray)
“Culloden” emerged at the high point in British television. In 1956 Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble toured Britain for the first time, and the company’s non-Aristotelian, distanciation techniques, which attempted to highlight theatre’s constructed nature and, in turn, politicize the spectator, were becoming increasingly popular among leftist theatre-makers […]  
The experimental and constructed nature of [“Culloden”] is all-too apparent: on-location shooting; fourth-wall breaking direct address to the camera; repeated, shaky camera work; tight close-ups on the protagonists’ faces and the presence of a narrator who describes events as if reporting on the daily news.
The anachronistic conceit that Watkins employs cannily presages the advent of the “mockumentary” (although you will discover nothing “funny” is going on in the course of the film’s 69 minutes). Yet there is nothing “gimmicky” about it, in fact, the overall effect is quite powerful and involving. As Archibald goes on to conclude in his essay:
Yet this is not simply an adaptation of [John Prebbles’ eponymous 1962 book] but stands in its own right as a legitimate historical representation of an important chapter in Scottish and British history. […] 
[Peter Watkins] never returned to television [following “The War Game” in 1965], but he leaves behind a brace of innovative yet accessible, provocative yet popular documentaries, which remain strikingly fresh and politically potent.
Here are 2 things I know to be true: Culloden is strikingly fresh. And history is cyclical.
(Note: BFI’s Blu-ray/DVD is Region “B”; it requires a region-free player for viewing!)

More reviews at Den of Cinema

--Dennis Hartley