They say history is always written by the victors, but the losers have stories too. This is Peter Watkins's attempt to redress the balance, taking the massacre of the Highland Scots at Culloden as his subject matter.

The word "seminal" is often bandied about these days but it is accurate to say that Watkins's Culloden is truly a seminal work, which, in many ways, changed forever the way in which documentary and historical programmes were shot and which still has an influence today.

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In 1964, the average documentary of a battle would involve historians doing voice-overs and maps showing troop advancement. Watkins didn't want to tell his audience the way it was, he wanted to show them. As a result, he gathered together a cast of unknowns to re-enact the battle but, instead of merely using his actors to demonstrate how it would have appeared, he went one better, actually "interviewing" members of the clans, personalising them, to accent the wealth of the English and Lowland Scots army compared to the poverty of their Gallic-speaking adversaries.

It is clear that politics and the lack of a coherent strategy cost the Highlanders dear, but Watkins doesn't end the story there. He follows the soldiers after the battle, showing how the victors systematically hunted down the vanquished in a shocking and dramatic way. On the DVD commentary track, Dr John Cook talks about Watkins's desire to shy away from images of violence in his modern films, because he believes it is all around us, anyway, but in his early films, born out of a sterilised and dusty landscape, he was determined to show the horror of such violence, in order to make the audience think.

The mastery of his direction is obvious from first to last, particularly when you consider how small the cast was and how tight the budget. He may have only had one cannon and a handful of extras, but by careful use of camera angles he makes it seem a lot more. This may not be Braveheart, but in terms of atmosphere it is easily as successful.

War is hell and Culloden goes a long way to remind the audience of the human suffering involved both on and off the battlefield.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2003
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Tale of the historic battle - emphasising the plight of the Highlanders.
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Director: Peter Watkins

Writer: Peter Watkins

Year: 1964

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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