by Allan Fish
(UK 1964 72m) DVD1/2
God is on our side
p Peter Watkins d/w Peter Watkins ph Dick Bush ed Michael Bradsell art Anne Davey, Brendan Woods, Colin MacLeod, John Shaw
Culloden is a testament to a great period in British broadcasting. An era when the BBC had directors such as Ken Russell, Ken Loach and Peter Watkins making ground-breaking works which redefined the very notion of small-screen narrative. All made their masterworks, and yet surely the biggest impact was made by the youngest of all. Peter Watkins was only twenty-six when Culloden was made, and it showcased one of the potentially great talents of post-war British film-making.
Culloden tells, in the form of a live air broadcast, the story of the last battle fought on British soil, between the rebel highlanders under the banner of the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the forces of His Majesty George II, led by the Duke of Cumberland, on Wednesday April 17th 1746. Not merely telling the story of the ill-fated battle itself, it shows in bloody detail the fate of many of the rebels after the battle.
The concept of shooting a historical piece as seen through the eyes of a 20th century TV reporter was audacious enough, but the realisation was greater even than that. Quickly Watkins shows the abject contrast between the fed, disciplined soldiers of the king’s army and the bedraggled, half-starved farmers press-ganged into service by ruthless profiteers on the rebel side only thinking of honours to be bestowed on them by the exiled self-styled James III in Rome. Some of the men bullied by their Clan Chiefs to turn up for a battle they did not want to be part of, many of them unfed for 48 hours, ill-equipped (4lb balls for 3lb cannons, etc) and pathetically led. The one solid general, Murray, overruled by the incompetence of a command lead by the single belief that God will see them to victory wherever they battle, even in such a terribly flat piece of moorland where the enemy guns and cavalry would have a field day picking off the rebels like ducks in a shooting gallery. Cumberland’s soldiers warmly embrace the upcoming slaughter – “they’re a lot of friggin’ savages!” one officer declares of the highlanders – and it wastes no time in showing the division between the Presbyterian South of Scotland, the lowlanders, and their Catholic highland equivalent, with their clan way of life and speaking the ancient Caledonian language, Gaelic.
One is actually reminded of those broadcasts of current times of intrepid journalists broadcasting from Iraq, Lebanon or some other war-torn part of the middle-east, except intensified to the nth degree by the whizzing of cannon fire and gunshot around them. We see various rebels blown to pieces, others with legs severed below the knee, others disembowelled. At the close of battle, no quarter is given, and all potential prisoners lying injured are either shot in the head, have their throats slit, or bayoneted in the stomach and trampled to death, till “the moor was covered in blood.” Most unlucky of all, the fate of Lachlan McDonald, minus a leg, untended and unfed for two days, he is finally carried into a line by British soldiers and has either his head crushed with a club or blown away by a pistol. Some of the rebels are sentenced to good old-fashioned hanging, drawing and quartering, others flee to the hills where they meet a worse fate – Cumberland’s call for the ‘pacification’ of Scotland, the greatest misuse of the word in history, resulting in thousands of highlanders being raped and slaughtered, the banning of the wearing of the tartan, speaking Gaelic, carrying arms and playing their music. It was, to all intents and purposes, an act of genocide which extinguished forever the spirit of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. In the words of the narrator, “they have created a desert and called it ‘peace’.” The final thought must be left to the commanders, to the gutless, cowardly Young Pretender who cared nothing for his charges at all, and for the heralded Duke of Cumberland. Let’s put it this way, one never can hear Handel’s immortal ‘Here the Conquering Hero Comes’ (‘Thine be the Glory’ to some) without feeling a sense of shame.