Tag Archives: Peter Watkins

Privilege (1967)

That Privilege, a faux documentary about the rise and fall of an English pop star, can be preachy and heavy-handed was probably inevitable. Peter Watkins, who had just watched his second film, The War Game, get banned by the BBC, was a bitter, angry old man at the ripe old age of 31. A black comedy about a teen idol, the object of desire for adolescent girls, requires a light, deft touch, a sympathetic understanding of popular music. That’s not what we got.

“There are millions of people down there, millions of little people,” Andrew Butler, a record company executive says to Steven Shorter, a thinly fictionalized version of the now almost completely forgotten Paul Anka, the Harry Stiles or Justin Bieber of the 1950s. “First we must be clear in our minds about one thing. The liberal idea that given enough education these millions will grow into self-aware, creative human beings is nothing but an exploded myth. It can never happen. They’re stunted little creatures with primitive emotions that are in themselves dangerous. They’ve got to be harnessed, guided. We’ve seen this happen over and over again for an evil purpose, Germany, Russia, China, but now we’ve got a chance to make it work for our own good. You. You’re our chance Steven. They identify with you. They love you Steven. You can lead them into a better way of life, a fruitful conformity.”

That, needless to say, is not a light, deft touch, and Watkins comes off as just another severe, angry dad going on about “these kids today.” Does anybody want to hear my 90 minute rant about One Direction? I didn’t think so. What’s more, he also ascribes an intentionality to the music industry that simply didn’t exist. Watkins is rightfully creeped out by the power that corporate, popular music has over little girls, but he doesn’t seem to understand that record company executives, as sleazy as they are, don’t care if teenagers conform or not. Their objective is to make money, not to prop up the state. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Far from wanting ciphers like Steven Shorter, the record companies prefer willful, self-destructive singers like Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, or egotistical, mirror-images of themselves like Madonna and the Rolling Stones. The biggest act in 2015 is not a Christlike figure like Steven Shorter, but Taylor Swift, an attractive young woman with the soul of a corporate executive. Rince, lather, repeat for Beyonce, and Lady Gaga.

Once you get past Watkins’ heavy-handed moralism,however, and the silly idea that the British ruling class would ever use a fictionalized Paul Anka to promote a bizarre Anglo-fascism in swinging London, Privilege becomes a remarkably prescient movie. The “coalition government” that was a fantasy in 1967 has become non-fiction, with both Labor and the Conservatives acting like two wings of the same neoliberal political party. Watkins got the particulars wrong, but there’s no question that corporate, popular music not only serves to keep young people apolitical and out of the streets. He was onto the way middle-aged men manufactured idols for the youth market, and kept their investments on a tight leash. The behavior of young singers like Steven Shorter is still closely policed. After Selena Gomez tweeted “pray for Gaza,” a loud, and very tightly coordinated backlash forced her to retract her tepid statement of support for the Palestinian people. Ariana Grande created a major scandal after she was filmed licking a donut and remarking “I hate America.” Manufactured celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner provide an endless stream of fodder for the tabloids and for social media that keeps those “millions of little people” living lives of “fruitful conformity.” Taylor Swift and Beyonce will be well into middle-age before they start preaching socialism along with their “lean in” feminism. At the height of his fame in the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen always made sure to dish out a generous helping of flag waiving patriotism along with his New Deal liberalism.

Privilege can be tediously moralistic, but it does have one genuinely great cinematic moment. It comes in the first 10 minutes, when Peter Watkins gets out of the way and lets the film’s star, Manfred Mann’s lead singer Paul Jones, take over and do his thing. It’s easy to see why Patti Smith would cover the theme song “Privilege” on her late 1970s album Easter. Smith’s cover is a virtuoso three and a half minute critique of Watkins’ film that expresses Steven Shorter’s ultimate rebellion against the corporate state better than the film itself. As Privilege opens, Paul Jones is dragged out on stage, and locked up in a cage by a group of policemen. He bangs on the bars and rattles his chains. He wails “set me free” as he whips the audience of teenage girls up into an orgasmic frenzy. There was nothing quite like Privilege in 1967, a song at least 10 years ahead of its time, the violent act anticipating punk, slam dancing, and The Who’s destruction of their instruments on stage. As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, Beatlemania, far from being an exercise in brainwashing and control, was actually an excuse for teenage fan girls to knock over barricades and fight the police. Almost in spite of himself, Peter Watkins predicted the way so many musicians would grow up along with their audience. In 1964, John Lennon was the leader of a boy band. In 1971, he was a political activist with an FBI file and a place on Nixon’s enemies list.

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.