Peter Watkins didn’t enjoy an especially long career at the BBC. The furore surrounding his second documentary saw him not only resign, but flee the UK into self-imposed exile. The project that sparked the controversy was 1965’s The War Game, a harrowing imagining of a potential Soviet nuclear attack on Kent. The UK government had concerns over its damning portrayal of the country’s nuclear preparedness and put pressure on the BBC to bury it upon its completion. Despite a theatrical release that resulted in it winning the Best Documentary prize at the 1967 Academy Awards it wasn’t aired in Britain until 1985, and now receives a much appreciated BFI Blu-ray release alongside Watkins’ other BBC offering.
When The War Game was screened for selected ministers, military figures and press in the mid-60s, Kenneth Tynan claimed in The Observer that “it may be the most important film ever made.” That sounds like hyperbole but it would be equally unwise to undersell Watkins’ achievements in crafting a truly remarkable film of astonishing power and scope on a limited television budget. He was apparently hired by the BBC in the first place due to his innovative approach to the medium and he brought it bear with tremendous effect on his two equally provocative mid-length films for the corporation. Watkins’ approach in both instances treads a fine line between documentary and fiction, as he had done previously in his short films and would return to do again in lauded features such as Punishment Park.
Culloden presents the infamous battle of 1746, a title card describing it as ‘one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain’. Affecting a fly-on-the-wall realism, it recreates the events of that bloody afternoon while the film crew record the action and interview the key players. The same docudrama style is adopted in The War Game, which presents the horrifying repercussions of multiple nuclear detonations. Both are soberingly narrated by a clipped, Received Pronunciation voice that only accentuate the horrors on the screen. They also allow for a deeper and wider-ranging analysis than a drama might, as they proffer insight into the motivations of the major players in Culloden and pepper the narratives with foreshadowing, or overlay death and destruction with stark technical information.
The immediacy of the monochrome documentary visuals wrangle with the distance of the voiceover replicating the internal conflict of an audience between terrified awe and vital education. What Watkins managed to achieve with both Culloden and The War Game is documentary filmmaking of profound emotional impact and undeniable importance. Even in which is considered the medium’s golden age, there are few titles that can rival the potent cocktail of this hugely impressive work.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson