Looking Back At CULLODEN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At CULLODEN

Alexander Wallace revisits the battlefield.
Historical memory can be very selective in what wars we remember as pointless. The very nature of such large-scale slaughter is as wasteful as it is tragic. Nevertheless, some stand out: the Thirty Years’ War, the First World War, and the Vietnam War stand out in the public memory. It is the latter in particular that gave us the modern vision of a pointless war, but there were people contemporary to it that realized this.

One of these people was Peter Watkins, who in 1964 released a film that took the anti-war feeling of the time and transposed it to a war romanticized by a number of people in Britain and elsewhere: the Jacobite Rising of 1745, specifically its final, pivotal battle at Culloden, near Inverness, in 1746. That battle was the last stand of the Jacobite cause, the last time that Charles Edward Stuart, the ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie,’ had any hope of gaining the throne of Great Britain. That film was bluntly, directly named Culloden.

Watkins’ stroke of genius in his film is a thoroughly anachronistic one: the decision to have a 1960s-style news crew reporting on the events of that bloody day in 1746. You get interviews with many people in both the Jacobite and government armies, from the poorest peasants (some of whom need interpreters) to the highest echelons, including Charles himself. It is here that you really begin to see the Vietnam parallels; Watkins portrays the Battle of Culloden as poor, downtrodden men turned into cannon fodder so that the rich and incompetent, like Prince Charles, can make themselves feel powerful.

The combat here is vicious, deliberately reminiscent of Vietnam-era war coverage. You get an impressive look at the artillery, as the crews with great finesse and know-how operate the cannons that turn men into the consistency of chunky marinara sauce. Like the artillery, the infantry are in formations that resemble well-oiled machines; in doing so, they become less than human, as war always renders the people who have to fight it.

One of the things that Watkins takes care to display is how the Jacobite Rebellion was fundamentally a civil war in Scotland, much as the Vietnam War was a civil war in that country. The film takes pains to note that there were more Scots in the government army than the Jacobite army, and the accents on either side are disturbingly similar.

This horror does not stop at the soldiers; the last third of the film is about the vicious attacks on civilians by the government army, wary of supporters of Prince Charles. Again, it calls to mind the likes of My Lai, with the nauseating inhumanity that that implies. This part becomes viscerally uncomfortable to watch, but it was necessary then and it is necessary now.

Culloden is one of the first examples of the docudrama format, and still one of the best uses thereof. It is a gritty, visceral film that pulls no punches, one that has, and deserves to, endure long after it was made.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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