Compare and Contrast
Culloden / The War Game
Several weeks ago, CriticWire's Sam Adams asked a pretty complex question: Do critics understand documentaries? In particular, the creators profiled in that piece were concerned that critics as a whole (and, I would add, the movie-going populous) have a very limited understanding of the depths that the documentary film can plumb and the new territory they can explore, both structurally and thematically. We’re concerned that a documentary be “fair” or, God forbid, “unbiased,” especially when covering a political or hot button issue. Those who don’t are pilloried as propagandists. And when a documentary lacks tweedy, bearded experts explaining the real problems directly to the camera (almost always expressing moderate, tempered, focus-tested opinions) it’s considered unprofessional.
This is obviously not a new debate. Even Nanook of the North, the first documentary feature film, professed to be an unbiased eye into the world of the Inuits, despite the way it subverted that goal in order to fulfill its needs (famously, the filmmakers asked Nanook to hunt a walrus with a harpoon, despite the fact that he owned a perfectly good shotgun. For authenticity). The documentary, like all film, cannot be an unbiased product because it must be manipulated by it’s creator. A director must decide to what to point the camera at, where to make cuts, what interviews to include or exclude. And there is a great deal of power in these manipulations, to the point that a propagandist and a documentarian are impossible to tell apart even in the most ideal circumstances.
For Peter Watkins, British “documentarian,” these questions are a defining problem for his films. A long time producer at the BBC, Watkins would go on to create mockumentaries that savaged the idea of the fair and the respectable within the documentary form. For him, the documentary was a thin veneer for ideology that fell apart when poked too hard, and he was going to poke at it from within.
Culloden was his first attempt at this style of filmmaking. The films premise is simple enough: what if cameras were present at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, “an account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain” as the narrator intones. The battle, between Scottish Highlanders rallied by Bonnie Prince Charlie and the English loyal to George II and led by the Duke of Cumberland (who is given the nickname “Butcher” due to the occurrences in the film), was the last fought in Britain, and broke the back of the Jacobite Rebellion (sorry, history lesson over).
Watkins approached his film with the ongoing war in Vietnam as visual reference. He was used to seeing the footage coming back from that war, interviews with exhausted, hungry grunts and over-confident commanders. He was used to seeing the unedited terrors of combat and the brutalities that come after. And with a handful of non-actors and a single cannon, he was committed to showing the same thing in a different context to prove that war has always been this way.
Culloden boldly skewers the elements of war reporting and documentaries that we still see in reporting today. He interviews the young Stuart challenger as a talking head. He interviews his commanders, who differ on the strategies necessary to win the battle. He interviews the common soldiers, many of whom speak in varieties of Gaelic rather than English, and most of whom are ignorant to the vast web of geopolitical conflicts that brought them to this killing field. In a perfect touch, he even has a real-life historian who was present on the field providing color-commentary. (For much of the battle, smoke obscures everything that the historian could possibly see. Watkins loves an obvious metaphor.) All of this is filmed with handheld cameras, capturing the feel of war reporting. Even the sound design is meant to strike hard at the gut. Over almost every scene, you can hear anguished cries and moans surrounding the camera and it’s subjects. The misery is enveloping.
Irony is Watkins’ primary weapon against the justifications of war and the vagaries of filming ‘reality’. He constantly juxtaposes emotionless, BBC-ready narration over images of horror and violence. He presents the weapons of war as boring fact rather than terribly destructive object. “This is grapeshot,” he says, holding out the tiny pellets that were the bane of soldiers in that era. He quickly cuts to soldiers on the field being killed en masse: “This is what it does.” Primarily because he only had a handful of actors, all the scenes of battle are tightly filmed with smoke obscuring everything around them. This technical limit manages to perfectly gel with the thesis of the film. If anti-war films about war are so hard to make because combat is inherently exciting on film, the quick cuts and disorienting camerawork make it nauseating. All violence here is personal, even as the narrator tries to depersonalize it. We hear Watkins say things like “Ian Macdonald, age 13, disemboweled,” a disturbingly curt death sentence compared to actually watching it drag out on screen.
The last third of Culloden, walking us through the aftermath of the battle, is where the heart of this exercise lies. We watch English execution squads roam the battlefield shooting wounded soldiers, then rounding up captives.withholding food and care to make room on prison ships headed to the colonies. They kill any families they believe are hiding rebels. The tone of the narration maintains its “unbiased” tone, reflecting the sanitized history of the magnanimous English, while we watch how blatantly wrong it is. He introduces three English soldiers from London - “By trade, they are butchers” - who are commended for “pursuing the enemy with vigor”. While filming a woman crying over a slain son, the narrator intones, “The Establishment has been saved, peace restored, church, crown trade and commerce safeguarded.” It is only at the very end of the film, where Watkins discusses the destruction of the clan system and the death of Scottish Highland culture, that the ironic veneer slips: “They have created a desert and called it peace.”
After the popular success of Culloden, the BBC was eager to work with Watkins again. He handed them a nightmarish movie that put him at odds with the network, the Civil Service, and Parliament itself. I imagine he couldn't have been happier. The War Game is a look into the future of war, just as Culloden was a look back. But while the latter movie argued that war has always been the same, this new one aimed to show a world that had permanently changed from the one we lived in before 1945. Directed like a news magazine program, it depicts the Cold War going hot, and a nuclear attack that hits Rochester (tellingly, it hits Rochester by accident - it was supposed to hit Gatwick).
Watkins take a wide swipe at an entire society that is in denial about the realities of nuclear warfare in a world where the hydrogen bomb is the standard bearer of destruction. Much of the man-on-the-street interviews, in which Watkins asks questions about the responsibility of retaliation or the effects of nuclear fallout on the human body, are his actors before they started work on the film, presenting their own opinions. Their ignorant opinions are then cut into scenes of vicious brutality, including a famous scene in which a firestorm caused by the bomb sucks firemen into it’s blaze. He also uses actors to paraphrase experts who have downplayed the threat of nuclear war, including an English bishop who defended the hydrogen bomb as a moral necessity. Even the title is filled with bitter irony. It is printed on the screen in bold letters reminiscent of the font used in government safety pamphlets. This is all a game you see, an exercise to make sure you stay safe and sound.
Watkins’ camera work in both films is masterful, using long takes and handheld cameras to continually build tension. In one scene, we follow a doctor making a house call to a child with a fever. Following the doctor in the car, then into the house, then taking the child's temperature, everything is serene. Then an air raid siren goes off and the entire scene collapses into pandemonium. Police rush house to house, people turn over tables and desperately find a place to hide. The camera keeps filming, unable to look away. Most of the documentary is filmed at distance with a telephoto lens, creating a deliberate focus on the individual at all times. Both movies show that violence on a mass scale is identical to violence on a single body writ large; It simply happens again and again and again. Whether reading the names of the killed at Culloden or focusing on the faces of starving children in long sweeping takes, Watkins refuses to generalize violence. It is always personal.
At times, the camera is pointed at an authority figure and directly asked questions, as if to comfort us that the documentary form still has the power to confront authority. Simple things like “what’s going on” are brushed aside with indifference. The formerly unarmed police are shown passing out pistols to quell unrest. Even so, the public is as complacent and as willing to accept authority as ever. In the pre-bomb segments, video of riots in Berlin is intercut with Londoners going about their day, doing their shopping and living untouched lives. After the bomb, the authorities resort to identifying bodies any way possible - in this case, by taking the wedding rings off of bodies in the hope that they’re inscribed. The image of a milk bucket filled with stolen rings is so compellingly odd and horrifying, it acts as a perfect encapsulation of what this world would be like. Without explicitly saying so, Watkins is asking if a society so dulled to the potential catastrophe of nuclear war could possibly survive it. That bucket says otherwise
The War Game quickly became one of the most polarizing films in British history. The BBC decided to let members of the government review the film before airing it, fearing it was too critical of the government’s ability to prepare for such a disaster. It was later decided that the film would not be shows on television, a ban that stayed in effect until 1985. It’s easy to see why: the film is brutal in its depictions of nuclear warfare, unflinching in its effort to prove the government’s attempt at calming the public dangerous at best. And while it had received some critical adulation in recent years, it manages to maintain much of it’s subversive message this many years after the Cold War has ended.
Both films, in fact, are as discomforting as they must have been in the mid-1960s. Watkin’s anti-war mockumentaries pillory all the things that make most documentaries critically palpable. There’s the talking heads representing established, moderate opinions (“Nuclear war wouldn't’t be that bad”); man-on-the-street interviews (“Democratic opinion will surely save us”); historians giving us precious context (despite the vast amount of knowledge obscured by history itself). He puts the lie to the idea that the camera can capture the whole truth by cutting together images that make no sense together, forcing us to confront the jagged, unvarnished truth at the heart of all this fiction. And unlike other war movies or post-apocalyptic stories, Watkins manages to strip all of the appealing elements out of them. There are no exciting battles, no heroes to even speak of. These are not fun movies by design.
If these movies are as hard to watch now as they were fifty years ago, what does that tell us about how we watch documentaries? Is it true that we expect that same sterile product that today’s avant garde documentarians are still railing against? If so, maybe the mockumentary is the ideal product to push the boundaries of acceptability, to prove that our idea of truthful, unbiased documentaries should have been abandoned around the time that Nanook put down his shotgun and picked up that harpoon.