Culloden / The War Game [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (19th March 2016).
The Film

“Culloden” (1964) / “The War Game” (1965)

Following a few years of assisting work at the BBC in the early 1960’s, Peter Watkins was given a chance to direct a television film in 1964 with “Culloden”, also scripted by Watkins. Based on the Battle of Culloden which took place on the 16th of April, 1746 in the Scottish Highlands, the film is not only reenacting the battle and aftermath, but unconventionally shot in the form of a newsreel documentary featuring interviews with soldiers and civilians. The telefilm was first broadcast by the BBC on the 15th of December, 1964 to great acclaim from critics and the public, securing Watkins’ next project for the BBC - “The War Game” in 1965. Again shot in a newsreel documentary style, this time it was a modern look at Britain if it had gone through a nuclear war, showing mass panic, the effects of radiation, and civil disobedience. Due to a series of controversial factors, the film was banned from broadcast on television and caused Watkins to voluntarily quit his job at the BBC. Although his directorial work there consisted of only 2 films made for television, the impacts of both works are undeniable.

Considering The Battle of Culloden was a battle between 9000 soldiers of the English Army and 5000 Jacobite rebels and the opening text of “Culloden” explains so, this small television production used clever techniques of filmmaking to help the illusion of 14000 men with a cast of about 20. Using extreme closeups of faces, playing with focal length, and even a simple trick of a few men circling around the camera to make it seem like an endless army marching on, the battle does seem larger than it really looked on set. The narration provided by the faux documentary crew explains who is fighting who, what they are fighting for, and the conditions of the battle to take place, but there is a much more personal level as the narrator also introduces personal information of the soldiers fighting - with names, occupation and age being given, plus interviews with the men. Some of them have no idea what they are fighting for, many of them are malnourished, and as history says, the Scottish Jacobites led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart would be slaughtered by the English Army.

Watkins is quite critical in the exploitation of civilians in war, rather than the political outcome of the war. The drafting and brainwashing of commoners into fighting for reasons beyond their grasp, having them mercilessly slaughtering each other, and for what? The horrors do not stop at the bloody battle which did not even last a full day, but continued on with the English brutally killing the wounded enemy soldiers, imprisonment of rebels, executions of hundreds, or for possibly the lucky ones - banishment to British colonies. With the use of closeups of faces of the amateur actors looking directly into camera while interviewed, the audience feels these are real people, and in fact were real people in history. “Culloden” was not only a story about the atrocities of the civil war more than 200 years prior, but also a mirror to the images of the Vietnam War, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurring right around the time of location shooting. Images of explosions, bloody bodies, news reporters trying to report the chaos - were these images from the telefilm “Culloden” or from the evening news?

Watkins truly pioneered the film genre of docudramas with “Culloden”, by placing a documentary crew at a historical place in which cameras had not existed, and critics and the press highly praised it as a true work of art. With critical success and acclaim from viewers, the chance for Watkins to shine with creativity even more at the BBC seemed certain, but...

Watkins had an idea about the effects of nuclear war prior to the production of “Culloden”, but was put on hold due to the controversy of the content. “The War Game” was also to be told in documentary newsreel form like his previous film, but instead of concentrating on a place and time from the history books, it was taken to a possible reality of contemporary Britain, as a “What if?” situation. What if the Soviet Union started a nuclear war against the Western world, and what would happen to Britain in that situation? The film shows the ensuing chaos of people being evacuated from their homes and separated from their families, people from the lower class revolting and rioting, and the government being unaccommodating to the intense situation. The effects of a nuclear bomb blast is shown in graphic detail, with radiation burns on bodies, blinding of people’s eyes, and intense blast waves causing fires and other sorts of damage to the cities. With Watkins researching through books, scientific data, documentary newsreels on bombed areas of Japan and Germany during World War II, his film was to be as accurate as possible on the effects of nuclear bombing in Britain, and a prediction of what would happen to the country based on aftermath data and with the ongoing social concerns in Britain being of the time - student demonstrations, class struggle, immigration concerns, and racism - being escalated even further. Like “Culloden”, stylistically the film is a documentary, with interviews from common people, scientists, government officials, with cameras following people from place to place. The recreation of the horrific images of radiation burns, riots, public executions, and how helpless people were to the conditions were extremely well made with more reality rather than fiction.

The film was to be an educational warning film of what may happen to Britain and its people if such an atrocity occurred, but unfortunately for the masses it was meant to be shown for, would not be able to watch it. The head of BBC TV Documentary Huw Wheldon, who recruited Watkins to the BBC, was a supporter of greenlighting “The War Game” but other heads at the BBC were completely against the film’s subject matter. Eventually with Wheldon’s power, the production was given a greenlight and completed in September of 1965. However, the heads of the BBC felt that the subject matter being shown was “too great for the BBC to bear alone” and in an unprecedented move, the independent BBC decided to showcase the film for the UK government. The BBC issued a statement on the 26th of November 1965 that “The War Game” had been banned from television broadcast as it was “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. Whether this was a direct decision from the BBC themselves or if this was a direct order from the government is not known clearly and full official records have been destroyed. Watkins was already threatening to leave the BBC if the film had been compromised in any way - whether in form of censorship of broadcasting a shortened and/or altered version or if the film was stopped from distribution.

Watkins left the BBC in protest, but was vocal in independent screenings of “The War Game”, which eventually won prizes around the world - a special prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, a Golden Mikeldi at the 1967 Bilbao International Festival of Documentary and Short Films, the Best Short Film award at the 1967 BAFTAs, and incredibly the Best Documentary Feature award at the 1967 Academy Awards in Hollywood, notably being the only “fiction” film to ever win the prize. The British public would not be able to see the film until 20 years later when the BBC finally broadcast it on television on the 31st of July, 1985, just before the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima.

Disenchanted with the BBC and with the British government on censorship, Watkins would eventually leave the country after completing his theatrical feature length debut in 1967 with “Privilege”, dealing with the subject matter of a futuristic totalitarian government and censorship (sounds very familiar). His subsequent features have also experimented with the docudrama format, blurring the line between documentary and fiction, in the United States with the acclaimed and controversial “Punishment Park” (1971), the pseudo-biography “Edvard Munch” (1976) in Norway, the epic 14.5 hour film about peace “The Journey” completed in 1987, and the historical reenactment documentary “La commune (Paris 1871)” (2000) recalling very much his 1964 film “Culloden”.

Note this is a region B locked Blu-ray which can only be played back on region B or region free Blu-ray players

Video

The BFI presents both “Culloden” and “The War Game” in 1080i 50hz, in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. Rather than a 1080p 24fps transfer, the restored films are presented in 25fps, the television standard format as they were intended for original broadcast.

“Culloden” was shot on 16mm film, and the HD transfer was made from the original A and B roll negatives. The film was for the most part in very good condition and the new transfer is splendid. Closeups on faces show extreme detail, with very good levels on the black and white image, without problems of fluctuations of grey shades. Restoration tools have removed dust, debris, scratches, and other damage while still retaining film grain.

“Culloden” is uncut has a runtime of (69:16).

“The War Game” was also shot on 16mm film, and the HD transfer looks great though don’t expect it to be on the same level as “Culloden”. Some shots were intentionally processed with additional damage to make it look closer to newsreel footage, while other shots look as good, or even better than “Culloden”. Again, restoration tools were used to remove much of the damage, but certain shots still have remaining damage. The quality is differing shot by shot. There is one point that doesn’t seem right though - on a freeze frame about 5 minutes into the film, the shot including the film grain is completely frozen, with narration continuing. For all other freeze frame shots, film grain is visible. Why that first use of freeze frame looked “unnatural” must be part of the HD transfer, but there is no indication in the booklet or extras about why it looks like that.

The vintage featurettes on the Blu-ray show clips of “The War Game” from the previous BFI DVD release from 2002, and the improvements show. The film elements going through a cleanup are very evident, the framing shows more information, and there are better black and white levels. To be fair, the 2002 DVDs looked good, but the Blu-ray presentation is much better.

“The War Game” is uncut and has a runtime of (46:21).

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono

Both “Culloden” and “The War Game” have their original monaural tracks in lossless LPCM. Both tracks have their limitations due to the age and conditions of the productions, but on a positive note, there are no problems with hisses, pops, or audio dropouts with the remastered tracks. Dialogue is usually easy to hear and understand with interviews, but there are instances of people yelling and screaming in “The War Game” that make it hard to decipher what they are saying. There are no problems with audio sync for the two films, as it is stated in the booklet that audio sync problems were also corrected.

There are optional English subtitles for both films, in a white font. The subtitles are easy to read, well timed, and with no problems to speak of.

Extras

BFI’s Blu-ray edition features a mix of old and new extras for the films.

Audio commentary on "Culloden" by John Cook
Professor of Media at Glaslow Caledonian University John Cook gives a great commentary on the 69 minute film, discussing the background of Watkins’ early BBC days, the stylistic approach, and the makings of a huge battle on a miniscule scale by the 28 year old director. Some interesting tidbits include the original plan for the film as a look at the battle from the eyes of 13 men and also how the location was actually not at Culloden. This commentary was originally recorded for and featured on the 2002 BFI DVD.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0, without subtitles

Audio commentary on "The War Game" by Patrick Murphy
Patrick Murphy, a senior lecturer in Film and Television at York St John University and biographer of Peter Watkins talks about the production of the film, Watkins’ childhood experiences during World War II and the influence it had, as well as some of the controversy it caused before and after the release. There are a few dead spots in the commentary which is surprising at the film is only 46 minutes long. At least Murphy does get to have some additional comments about the controversy and eventual release of the film in the supplements. One irksome note is Murphy’s constant pronunciation of “Nu-cular” throughout the commentary. This commentary was originally recorded for and featured on the 2002 BFI DVD.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0, without subtitles

Michael Bradsell Interview (2015) (20:50)
Film editor Michael Bradsell reminisces about first meeting Watkins, working together on both “Culloden” and “The War Game”. Bradsell details about Watkins style of shooting, Watkins disenchantment and falling out with the BBC, and some of the editing tricks used in the films to cover up for the small budgets.
in 1080i 50hz, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles

"Culloden on Location" featurette (7:44)
This 8mm silent home movie footage was shot by actor Donald Fairservice during the 1964 production of “Culloden” in color. John Cook gives mandatory commentary pointing out who is who in the cast and crew, the terribly bland ham and cheese sandwiches catered, and about the locations used. This featurette was originally featured on the 2002 BFI DVD.
in 1080i 50hz, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles

"The War Game - The Controversy" 2002 featurette (18:35)
Patrick Murphy gives more detailed information about the background on the trouble getting the film made, the eventual banning of the film, and the subsequent awards and acclaim it received worldwide. Footage shown is from the previous DVD transfer of the film, which you can see has a lot more dust, specs, and damage than the new Blu-ray. Again, Murphy loves to say “Nu-cular” instead of “Nu-clear”. This featurette was originally featured on the 2002 BFI DVD.
in 1080i 50hz, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles

"The War Game Book" (stills gallery, 66 pages)
The book of “The War Game” by Peter Watkins was also published in 1967, and is currently out of print. Rather than a novelization of the telefilm, it is an accompaniment with photos and information. The BFI has kindly scanned the entire book page by page for manual scrolling. Question is, why did they do this rather than a downloadable PDF? I would imagine most would rather read this on a digital reading device or a computer rather than a television monitor. Regardless, it is a fascinating read.
in 1.33:1

Booklet
The booklet includes essays, full film credits, extras information, and text about the film presentations.
The first essay is “Culloden” by David Archibald, a senior lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Glasgow. Should be noted the essay states Watkins was 24 at the time of “Culloden” but correctly he was 28. The second is “The War Game” by John Cook which delves quite a lot into the controversy and the government’s reaction to the film. Last there is a Peter Watkins biography written by BFI curator William Fowler.

DISC TWO (DVD Copy)
Also included is a DVD copy with the films and all the extras from the Blu-ray disc included.

So what is missing?
For starters, the 2002 BFI DVD of “Culloden” also included Watkins’ 1961 short "The Forgotten Faces" (which Michael Bradsell talks about in the interview) and the 2002 BFI DVD of “The War Game” also included Watkins’ 1959 short “The Diary of an Unknown Solider”. These are unfortunately missing from this Blu-ray set, though it should be noted they are available on BFI's Blu-ray of "Privilege". Also unfortunate is that Peter Watkins himself is not included in any of the supplements - no interviews whether new or vintage. He has done video interviews for various other titles of his on DVD and Blu-ray, so it would have been interesting to hear from Watkins reflecting back.

Overall

More than 50 years later, the two BBC productions of director Peter Watkins "Culloden" and "The War Game" are still fascinating, shocking, as well as educational and highly artistic works. The BFI’s Blu-ray presents the films with fantastic video and audio improving upon the 2002 DVD releases, and includes very informative supplements. It’s unfortunate that none of Watkins’ short films were included, but overall it still comes highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B Overall: A-

 


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