English director and screenwriter. Educated College of Christ, Brecknockshire and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Profound impact of living near London during Blitz, huddling under kitchen table during V1 attacks. Called up to serve in East Surrey Regiment 1954 - bullied as potential officer material, scheduled to be sent to Kenya to fight Maus Maus, got highest score in course for clerk's training so spent time in army in Salisbury; demobilised 1956. During conscription directed amateur production of WW1 drama Journey's End by R.C Sherriff. Began in advertising making TV shorts and commercials before turning to amateur filmmaking in 1950s. Job with BBC 1961-67 as assistant editor, producer and director of documentaries. Commissioned by BBC TV and BFI in mid-1960s to make two feature-length "docudramas" using a quasi-newsreel style and nonprofessional actors. One of these was the perhaps too realistic The War Game (1967) which showed the consequences of a nuclear atttack on the English county of Kent and the inadequacies of offical civil defence preparation. It was banned from TV broadcast and international release until the late 1980s. Its theatrical release earned it an Oscar for best documentary in 1966. Moves to Sweden after British support for The Gladiators (1969) falls through.

Acted as soldier in Kevin Brownlow's It Happened Here (1959) about successful Nazi occupation of Britain.

Often compared to George Orwell in his commitment to the problems of individual freedom in an oppressive and conformist world. Innovative combination of feature film, newsreels and documentary with his style of filmmaking termed "documentary reconstructions".

Other Films

  • amateur films The Web (1956) about Nazi soldier fleeing French underground; The Field of Red (1958) a film about the American Civil War; Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) another film about trench warfare in WW1; The Forgotten Faces (1961) a reconstruction of the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising.
  • As professional filmmaker for the BBC Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1966); Privilege (1967) about a pop-star used by the state to ensure the social control of youth; Proper in the Circumstances an unmade Western film from the Indian point of view; The Gladiators (1969) or "The Peace Games" about a future society in which war and national antagonisms are replaced by ritual gladiatorial combat; series of documentaries made in Scandinavia; unmade trilogy of films about the American Revolution, Civil War, and Indian Wars; Punishment Park (1971) a depiction of the polarization of public opinion in the US during the Vietnam War; Edvard Munch (1974); The Journey (1986) a 14.5 hour epic that addresses such issues as the arms race and global hunger.


The Meaning of the Title

The Battle of Culloden took place on 16 April, 1746. Thus named after a battle - compare with "Gettysburg"; "The Longest Day".


  • "The Men, Women and Children of Inverness."
  • Prince Charles Edward Stuart or "Bonnie Prince Charlie" - (also appeared later in Rowan Atkinson's Black Adder)
  • William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland -
  • the clan general George Murray -
  • the 18thC whig historian Andrew Henderson -
  • narrator - Peter Watkins
  • Script - Peter Watkins
  • Battle Co-ordinator - Derek Ware
  • Historical Advisor - John Prebble
  • Music - "My Bonnie Moorhen" by Colin Cater


During English Civil War Scotland supported and sheltered the Stuart monarch Charles I and was punished by Cromwell. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 deposed the restored Stuarts and installed William of Orange as King of England, some Highland chieftans refused to swear the oath of loyalty to William and were "massacred " for their resistance at Glencoe in 1692. 1707 Union of England and Scotland under new name of "Great Britain" in which English monarchy would rule, one parliament in London to which Scotland would send representatives, an end to Scottish peerage, retention of Presbyterian church and Scottish legal system, new flag (Union Jack) with crosses of St George (English) and St Andrew (Scottish).

France and some Scottish chieftans wanted to return Stuart James II to throne (Jacobites). Attempted in 1715 but highland forces split and easily defeated by English supporting Hanoverian monarchy. Second attempt in 1745 when France and Britain at war. James Stuart (heir to James II) was proclaimed King James III of England and French navy landed son Prince Charles to rally Highlanders with weapons and some troops. Initial success by Charles in capturing Edinburgh, then wanted to invade England with support from French with channel-crossing of 15,000 men. Charles overestimated support of Highlanders for invasion of England and capacity of French Navy to challenge British Navy in Channel. The 25 year old William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland ("the Butcher") recalled from war in the Netherlands to counter Prince Charles. Cumberland retook Edinburgh January 1746. Prince Charles retreated north to Inverness but was engaged by Cumberland's troops at Culloden Moor. Cumberland's 18 field guns massacred the Highlanders and the repression and slaughter which followed destroyed traditional Highland society and ended the Jacobite movement. Emmigration of Scottish highlanders to US, Canada, and later Australia.


Based on the book by John Prebble, Culloden (Penguin, 1961, 1967) who also served as historical advisor to Watkins.

  • sequel The Highland Clearances (Penguin, 1963) and
  • prequel Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre (Penguin, 1966, 1968).

John Prebble is a film writer, documentary maker, WW2 veteran, war novelist and historian. In his history of Culloden, which was the basis for Watkins' film, he describes the battle and the subsequent treatment of the Clans in the following manner:

'Tis mine and everybody's opinion,' said Enoch Bradshaw, 'no history can brag of so singular a victory."' This was an ordinary soldier's judgement, and ordinary soldiers, who are asked to do most of the dying, count great victories in terms of loss to themselves. Of nearly nine thousand Horse and Foot who had advanced from Nairn, fifty only were dead, and two hundred and fifty-nine wounded, or such were the figures published by the Government. Since an army defeated and routed is in no position to determine its casualties, and since an army victorious may be inclined to exaggerate those it inflicts, the Rebel losses are hard to assess. Some reports put the dead at two thousand, which would be nearly half the numbers engaged. The figure was certainly not less than twelve hundred, which is the most modest figure. A Presbyterian minister, living close to the moor, was told later by one of the Duke (of Cumberland)'s surgeons, 'a very sedate, grave man', that he had counted all the bodies that lay on the field of battle as exactly as he could, and had made the number about seven hundred and fifty. These were bodies lying where the fight had been fiercest, and did not include those who crawled away to die in the hills, the fugitives ridden down on the roads, the wounded who were slaughtered on the moor during the next two or three days. Even while the surgeon counted, the infantry were stabbing and thrusting at any movement in the bodies before their stationary line. (p. 112)

... Some of the skulls of the hanged, spiked above the gates of the cities in which they were executed, were still grinning down on the streets thirty years later when another King George faced another rebellion, this time in the Colonies.

The laws under which the prisoners were arrested, gaoled, hanged, banished or transported, were many and confused. There were also Cumberland's frequent drum-head proclamations by which he promised that if he did not get exact obedience the guilty would be 'pusued with the utmost severity as rebels and traitors by due process of law or military execution'. But the simple meaning of all the laws and proclamations was this: any man, woman or child found in arms against the King, or helping such people in arms, or expressing sympathy with the Rebellion, was thereby guilty of treason. It was a wide net of small mesh, and it caught many fish. Their disposal was not so easily decided. Cumberland's solution, in May (1746), was a soldier's solution, and was ridiculously impracticable, like most of the proposals made by victorious generals. He believed it to be 'the only sure remedy for establishing Quiet in this country', and he urged its acceptance upon Newcastle.

"I mean, (he said) the transporting of particular Clans, such as the entire Clan of the Camerons and almost all the Tribes of the McDonalds (excepting some of those of the Isles) and several other lesser Clans, of which an exact list may easily be made."

He believed that prisons and mountains should be flushed clean of all Jacobites. (p. 232)


Joseph A. Gomez, Peter Watkins (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979).

S.M.J. Arrowsmith, "Peter Watkins," in British Television Drama, ed. Goerge W. Brandt (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 217-38.

Ina Rae Hark, "On Eyewitnessing History: The Compromised Spectator in Peter Watkin's Culloden," The South Atlantic Quarterly, Summer 1985, vol. 84, no. 3, pp. 294-301.

Jeremy Black, Culloden and the '75 (Dover, N.H.: A. Sutton, 1990).

James Michael Hill, "The Distinctiveness of Gaelic Warfare, 1400-1750," European History Quarterly, 1992, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 323-45.


  • The voices of the "narrator" (Peter Watkins) and the "historian" on the events depicted. The narrator acts, as Gomez notes, as "storyteller, factual annotator, ironic commentator, sympathetic partisan, and, on at least one occasion, omniscient observer" (p. 38). Compare to Laurence OIivier in the World at War (1973) series. Complemented by the commentary by the "eyewitness" 18thC Whig historian Andrew Henderson who peers over stone walls through an eyeglass.
  • The use of black and white film to make it appear more like TV (pre-colour transmissions)? or similar to Kubrick's use of B&W in Paths of Glory (1957) - political point to be made in stressing starkness of situation? Is the past BW or Colour?
  • The anachronistic use of TV camera and interviewer on an 18thC battlefield. How does the viewer respond to this? the "paritcipants"?
  • 4How should historians treat Watkins' "documentary reconstruction"? Differently from "historical" feature films? In conjuction with Prebble's books? With disdain?
  • Compare this film with other "battle reconstruction" films such as Maxwell's American Civil War film Gettysburg (1995) and the blockbuster reconstruction of the "D Day" landings on the Normandy beaches in 1944, The Longest Day (1962).
  • Watkins treatment of the legend/myth of "Bonnie Prince Charlie" - the Moorhen song.
  • The Scottish weed/flower ("Stinking Billy" and the "sweet William" named after the Duke of Cumberland.
  • Compare the British policy of "clearing" the highlands with the "ethnic cleansing" which has taken place in Yugoslavia recently.
  • The comparisons Watkins may have been making with contemporary events in Vietnam - an imperial power using high technology against a primitive enemy; "pacification" program after the battle; atrocities of war. First shown in America on PBS in 1973. Underming the myth of heroic and glorious British Imperial expansionism.
  • Cumberland's defeat of the Highlanders was celebrated by the court composer Frederic Handel in "See the conqu'ring hero comes" from Judas Maccabeus.
  • What is Watkins' own position on the highland clan system ("human rent" for an "ancient and brutal system")? on Scottish nationalism? on the actions of the English army (officers and enlisted men)?
  • The depiction of the Clausewitzian "fog" of battle - chaos, noise, confusion.
  • The clash between the traditional highland or "Gaelic" method of fighting and the British use of grapeshot and bayonnette.
  • Implied critique of the TV program "You Are There" (CBS with Walter Cronkite) - possibility of all-knowing, anachronistic TV interviewer and cameraman.
  • compare with the similar anachronistic "reconstruction" in the extract from Paul Murton, Rebellion: Culloden (1996) 50mins