Culloden (1964)

Americans who don’t understand the difference between “English” and “British” could do worse than to watch Culloden, the classic 1964 docudrama by the British (and English) filmmaker Peter Watkins, a low-budget yet brutally realistic film that dramatizes the last major battle fought on British soil.

The Scots Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the heavily romanticized and largely misunderstood attempt by the Stuart dynasty to regain the English and Scots (although not British) crown was the last major conflict in an economic, ideological, religious, and ethnic struggle that went back to the 16th Century. Although the English Civil War largely decided that the British Isles would be Protestant and capitalist, not Catholic and feudal, the Celtic periphery in Ireland and the Scots Highlands clung stubbornly to the past. In 1745, their hopes settled on Charles Eduard Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the grandson of King James II of England, the Stuart monarch ousted by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.

Bonnie Prince Charlie, who by all accounts was the very last person you would expect to topple the British crown, actually came close. In 1745, he landed at Glenfinnan in the Scottish Highlands, quickly raised an army of Scots Highlanders, and marched south. He defeated a royal army at Prestonpans near Edinburgh, crossed the border into England, captured Carlisle and Manchester, and got as far as Derby before the presence of three more English armies forced him to retreat back across the border to Scotland. Having failed to provoke an uprising of English Jacobites, Stuart’s army had reached its “high water mark.” It began to disintegrate. On 16 April 1746, in one of the most lopsided battles in history, the badly led, badly provisioned, and demoralized Jacobite army was crushed by a royalist army on Culloden Moor just outside of the Scots Highland town of Inverness.

Peter Watkins takes the ax to the romantic legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause, even as he condemns the brutality of English capitalism and the genocide of the Scots Highlanders. Culloden depicts Bonnie Prince Charlie as a rank incompetent. He fails to move his supply train out of Inverness to feed his men. Culloden Moor, his choice of battlefields, gives the already vastly superior royal army an even greater advantage. He neglects to tear down fortifications before they’re seized by the English. He fails to listen to the advice of Lord George Murray, his best general.

What happened at Culloden Moor in 1746 was murder, not war. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops were not the French republican army of 1793, or the American army at the Battle of Trenton. They were a disorganized mass of Scots peasants press ganged into service by their clan chieftains. But it wasn’t the rank and file soldiers to blame for the crushing defeat. They fought as bravely as could be expected, under the circumstances. Rather, Watkins contends, it was the doomed class system of the Scots Highlands. With the exception of Lord George Murray, the officers of the Jacobite army were worse than incompetent. They were butchers who regarded their men as human cattle worthy of little more than to be led to the slaughter. Culloden Moor and its aftermath weren’t the genocide of the Scots Highlands so much as they were the suicide of the Scots Highlands.

William, the Duke of Cumberland, on the other hand, was a cold, brutal, almost inhuman master of counterinsurgency. After his modern, capitalist, well-provisioned army of English and Scots Lowlanders so easily routed the Jacobites, he decided not to follow the conventional rules of warfare. On the contrary, he mounted a vile campaign of propaganda that will be familiar to anybody who’s studied the Nazis in Eastern Europe or the genocide of the Native Americans. The Scots Highlanders, Cumberland maintained, were a subhuman race of brutes who, if they had prevailed, would have slaughtered the English and Scots Lowlanders without mercy. His troops are as brainwashed as any Fox News watching American who goes to see American Sniper. Those people aren’t like us. They have no regard for human life. So let’s slaughter them down to the last woman and child.

François Truffaut famously contended that a genuinely anti-war movie is impossible. In Culloden, Peter Watkins crushes his argument as easily as the Duke of Cumberland crushed Bonnie Prince Charlie. Culloden is a catalog of human misery. If the English soldiers haven’t bathed for some time, the Scots Highlanders haven’t eaten in almost as long. There is no food, no medical care, no shelter. You can feel the cold, smell the loose bowel movements, experience the disease, the dental pain, the listlessness that comes from hunger. You feel the agony of a 13-year-old Jacobite child soldier when an English canon ball severs his leg below the knee. Stuart’s miserable Scots peasants don’t fight. They wait obediently to be murdered. That they do it so bravely and so patiently is not so much a testament to their courage, but to the ox-like obedience that the feudal system demands of them. These poor men are quite literally sheep.

I suppose it’s fitting, therefore that they were replaced by sheep. I’ve never been to Scotland, but from what I’ve read, the Duke of Cumberland’s genocide in the Scots Highlands is still in evidence today. Land that was heavily populated in 1745, is now a dark, gloomy wilderness. The people who once lived there have gone abroad, to Appalachia in the United States, to Canada, to the Scots Lowlands and to England. In an ironic twist of history, the ethnically cleansed Scots Highlanders became the rank and file stormtroopers of the British Empire, slaughtering Indians on the American frontier as surely as their ancestors had been slaughtered by the English.

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2 comments

  1. […] 1964, a British filmmaker named Peter Watkins released what might be the greatest anti-war movie ever made. Shot in the style of a faux documentary, Culloden (1964) demolished the romantic legend of “Bonnie […]

  2. […] Culloden (1964): François Truffaut said it’s impossible to make a genuinely anti-war film. He was […]

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