Armchair Cinephile

Even in an age where films blurring the line between fact and fiction are commonplace enough to demand their own genre label (the “mockumentary”), the cinema of British native Peter Watkins is a rare beast — a fascinating filmography, blending aesthetic and political concerns, that has seen a huge boost in accessibility thanks to a passel of recent DVD releases.

The bulk are from New Yorker Video, which offers not only the director’s most U.S.-baiting work (Punishment Park) but early efforts that make sense of its confrontationalism. In Culloden and The War Game (1964 and 1965), we see Watkins’s innovative approach employed in two different ways, one recounting the past and one imagining a near future.

Using historical accounts, Culloden restages a 1746 battle in which the brutal realities of the Scottish clan system are spelled out in blood. What’s odd is that Watkins outfits his armies and sets them on the battlefield, then records the day as if he were leading a ’60s-era TV-news crew: Participants speak directly to the camera, action is captured on the fly, and a somber-voiced narrator explains the harsh ironies that led so many to die under foolish, drunken leaders.

The War Game, on the other hand, documents a nuclear attack on Britain. Obviously it’s imaginary, but Watkins roots his unsettlingly realistic scenes in rock-solid fact, using accounts of Hiroshima and current data from the Civil Defence to suggest exactly how horrifying a breakdown between NATO and the Soviet Union could have been.

Both films used nonprofessional actors, a tactic Watkins has continued through his career. This has a particularly chilling effect in 1970s poli-sci-fi effort Punishment Park, which in its way is both stronger and weaker for being bound to its time. Not Watkins’s most subtle scenario, Park envisions a United States in which war protesters (the “actors” are student-age activists themselves) are declared criminals, then offered a choice: unbearably long prison terms, or four days in a barren desert. Convicts tend to choose the latter, where they’re forced to play a game whose rules are stacked against them. It’s a film with a hopeless, furious tone reflecting post-hippie radicalism — but if the jargon is dated, the issues are depressingly relevant in a Gitmo world.

Since the ’70s, Watkins hasn’t just stuck with completely political subjects — the art biopic Edvard Munch is among New Yorker’s offerings — but that’s certainly what he’s best known for. First Run Features has released what to date is his magnum opus, the nearly six-hour La Commune (Paris, 1871), which marshals more than 200 actors to restage one of history’s most famous rebellions. The 1999 film takes Culloden’s approach further, imagining not one but two teams of TV journalists, each with a clear bias toward either the bourgeois or the rebels.

Watkins has his own bias, and he’s refreshingly clear about it. Speaking about La Commune on his astoundingly thorough, always polemical web site (, he describes the project’s birth:

“We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history ... where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered ‘old fashioned.’ ... what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia — which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma.”

In a contemporary cinematic landscape where most left-leaning filmmakers have their hands full documenting the horrors unfolding around us, it’s good to have a maverick or two out there insisting that idealism still stands a chance. Watkins has yet to release a film since September 11 — I sincerely hope he hasn’t lost his faith. 


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