A documentary-filmmaking crew is dispatched to Culloden Moor to provide coverage on what may be a historically important battle between a Jacobite confederacy of Highland Scots and an English army loyal to the British government… except that it’s already taken place. The year is 1746 and we already know the battle has at least some historical import if someone bothered to record it. Anachronism is part of director Watkins’ conceptual tool belt, and he employs it here with no less imagination and ingenuity than later masterpieces. If it sounds like a mockumentary, and technically it is, keep in mind that the upending of genre conventions is only a mere pretense, a vehicle to take us somewhere else entirely. Out of time.
Another Watkins trademark is usefully employed in Culloden: his utilizing the talents of non-professional actors. We get to know a whole host of characters in uniform, each with distinct features and predilections, each with a reason for fighting no matter how delusional. The Scots by and large are a rabble of men, cobbled together from various clans for various reasons, foremost among them money for their families and glory for their names. Watkins treats us to full-frame close-ups with laconic sketches drawn from the characters’ own lips, giving the audience a sense of personal investment in the battle to come and raising our ire at the whole bloody mess.
Perhaps the figure that looms largest is Charles Edward Stuart, commander-in-chief of the confederacy of Scots and pretender to the English throne, who is remembered by history and in song as Bonnie Prince Charlie, the dashing, young rebel and reluctant war-maker. Watkins dissipates this inflated image immediately. He presents Charles as a bumbling half-wit utterly convinced of his own rectitude and invulnerability (though in terms of historical inscrutability he was right). He puts his faith in Captain Sir John McDonald as battle-strategist, perhaps the greatest ineptitude of all. Culloden Moor is the wrong place at the wrong time to stage a last-ditch offensive, and everyone behind Scottish lines seems to know it except Charles and his cronies.
The first half of the film up to and including the waging of the battle is marked stylistically by an incongruity between narration and visual content. The narrator (Watkins himself) gives us a colored account of the men in uniform and their present circumstances—he mentions that Captain McDonald is “aged, frequently intoxicated and… a man of the most limited capacities”; and Charles Edward’s only prior military experience was “ten days attendance at a siege at the age of thirteen”—as the camera captures them in heroic poses. In fact, if you muted the volume, the entire first half might appear to be nothing more than a spontaneous document.
What proceeds is one of the most lopsided battles in recorded history, with the Scots being painted all over the lowland peat by bullet and cannon. Reporting from the sidelines is famous historian Andrew Henderson, who amusingly updates the documentary crew on the shifting tides of the battle and often has to shout to be heard over the din. Even Henderson cannot make what’s on display more compelling than a man swatting a fly. The English rank and file appear at times to cringe in the direction of the Scots. This is a victory tainted by feelings of pity for the enemy—a queasy satisfaction. During and after the battle the director continually tests our perspective. Instead of presenting events as they were recorded—case closed—he allows the audience to contemplate what could have been. What if the leadership were different? What if Prince Charles had contemplated the protestations of his own men? What if clan loyalties hadn’t interfered with conduct? What if Culloden Moor hadn’t been deemed a suitable battleground?
But of even greater interest perhaps than the battle itself is the ethnic cleansing that followed, and this is where Watkins’ dramatic emphasis is really placed. There is a desire on the English side not to merely punish or demand tribute from the clans, but to extirpate the families who raised and supported the soldiers. What follows is a brutal campaign, one that effectively “[tears] apart forever the clan system of the Scottish Highlands”. Watkins again punctuates the brutality with an ironic disparity between temporal and spatial representation, but this time the narrator gives us the widely-dispersed and believed account while the camera shows us otherwise. Meanwhile, Charles, who abandoned his men on the battlefield, has taken shelter among his supporters until the opportunity arises to flee to France. Thus the memory of Charles the war hero survives the merciless aftermath of his blundering. To the victor belong the spoils, which includes the account.
Watkins uses history to posit his own immaterial dialectics, asking us to think of events in abstract and often complex ways, as the alternating modes of presentation and perspective would suggest: in the film’s second act, the illusion of vérité is largely kept intact, but the camera favors a more dramatically selective approach—and the tonal shift amply demonstrates, better than any revisionist historian could, the tragedy not only of the inhuman acts committed, but of the gloss of comforting myth over reality. Those folks who are fed up with the way history is presented by the well-meaning pedagogues, the apologists and the reigning arbiters of realpolitik, would do well to seek out Peter Watkins’ oeuvre. He understands that the presentation of history has less to do with facts than with hypotheses. As this film and others will attest, this is a filmmaker who would rather defy stubborn beliefs than deify them.