The Revolution Should not be Televised: The Oeuvre of Peter Watkins

Curtis Russell


Part I: “Don’t Forget to Look in the Camera”

Peter Watkins, “Le Commune (de Paris) 1871” – source:

Peter Watkins has always had a testy relationship with his chosen medium. His entire body of film and television work, from 1964’s Culloden to 2000’s La Commune (Paris, 1871), contains a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit critique of the filmic image. Where Eisenstein and Vertov saw the juxtaposing of two images through editing as the key to cinema’s revolutionary mystique, Watkins views montage as a Janus-faced betrayal of the camera’s unique capability to root out the truth. If movies are, in Roger Ebert’s famous axiom, “a machine that generates empathy,” then for Watkins every edit debilitates the machine, foreclosing thought and prescribing emotion in a dogged drive toward predetermined meaning.

Born in 1935, Watkins came of age with the television, and acknowledges that his early films as a young producer at the BBC indulged in this stylistic system, which he dubs “the Monoform.” Yet his films have resisted this structure since before he had the words to label it, often calling attention to their constructedness with myriad Brechtian devices. Watkins’ cinema is a distinctly postmodern riposte to John Gardner’s “fictive dream,” which Watkins views as narcotizing and deadening. He insists that the viewer never forget that she is watching the product of the biases, ideologies, and personalities of its creators and the social and economic systems in which they work.

The six-hour La Commune, which restages the rise and fall of the Paris Commune in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, encapsulates all the generative contradictions that animate Watkins’ unique body of work. Filmed entirely in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris with a mostly amateur 200-member cast writing and improvising their own dialogue, the movie is presented as a series of news reports by “Commune TV.” The anachronistic film is neither narrative nor documentary nor reportage, but bears clear hallmarks of all three.

In The Universal Clock, a documentary on the filming of La Commune, an actor slated to appear as a commentator on “News TV Versailles,” the official state outlet, asks Watkins if he wants him to side with the state or the communards. “Be yourself” is Watkins’ reply. “I don’t want you to wear a mask.” Such advice is the mark of a self-possessed artist who, despite an early reluctance to shake off the veneer of objectivity, has spent his long career methodically removing his own masks.

Watkins’ work is a descendant of what documentary historian Betsy A. McClane calls the “second line of British documentary” from the 1930s, a socially conscious strain led by critic and filmmaker John Grierson. Commonly credited with inventing the term “documentary,” Grierson was the first public relations officer for the UK’s General Post Office, where he led a film unit that made more than a hundred films emphasizing the Post Office’s modernity. The “second line,” however, made outside the GPO, attempted to draw attention to social problems throughout the UK. With titles such as Housing Problems, Enough to Eat?, and The Smoke Menace, these brief journalistic films pioneered the use of direct address as a shortcut to authenticity.

According to McClane, the welfare state called for by the second line films became a reality following the devastation of World War II, which led to a strong sense of nationalism and a push toward a more poetic cinema, heralding the common man instead of the technological advances highlighted by Grierson’s school. The Free Cinema documentary group, led by Lindsay Anderson, looked to contemporary European fiction film for inspiration. It’s not hard to imagine their manifesto, as outlined in the program of their first exhibition at the British Film Institute in 1956, inspiring a young Watkins. It read, in part:

As film-makers we believe that

No film can be too personal.

The image speaks. Sound amplified and comments.

Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.

An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.

Though consisting of only 12, initially little-seen films, Free Cinema would have an outsized influence not only on the well-known fictional output of its adherents (If…, Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), but on Ealing comedies and other idiosyncratic postwar British genres as well. It would also have an impact on Watkins’ oeuvre, specifically in its grainy, hand-held black-and-white images, its antipathy toward box office success and corporate sponsorship, and its inherent revolutionary bent.

Though Watkins’ work is primarily didactic, his early short films bear strong resemblance to the Free Cinema, which McClane classifies as non-didactic and aesthetic, crafted to appeal more to emotion than intellect. Watkins’ 1959 Diary of an Unknown Soldier is a first-person account, narrated by the director (like most of his films), of the last day in the life of a British private in World War I. The soldier’s tinny interior monologue is almost unbearably grating and on-the-nose, yet the 24-year-old Watkins displays a remarkable proficiency with battle scenes. The kinetic camera work, which darts between great depth of field and extreme close-up, bristles with the energy of a young artist discovering his power.

Watkins’ battle cinematography, which would become even more refined and dynamic over the next decade, would be one of the first “masks” Watkins guiltily shed as he embraced video in the 1970s. Culloden, however, finds him stretching his legs creatively and employing his energetic camera in far more entertaining and bruising anti-war story. Except for the specifically British context, the film’s title description could serve as an epigraph for Watkins’ entire career: “An account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain. An account of its tragic aftermath. An account of the men responsible for it. An account of the men, women and children who suffered because of it.” The setting is the real-life 1746 Battle of Culloden, 4 ½ miles southwest of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, which only lasted 68 minutes but claimed the lives of almost 2,000 Jacobite rebels, “the last battle to be fought in Britain, and the last armed attempt to overthrow its king.”

Watkins employs, for the first time, the pseudo-documentary form that he would continue to use off and on throughout his entire career up to La Commune, as of this writing his last film. The form had recently gained notoriety with the “mondo” exploitation films in Italy, but for Watkins, it represented his first explicit engagement with televisual manipulation. An unseen Watkins interviews commanders and soldiers on both sides of the battle, positioning the film as a less jingoistic Henry V.

Culloden begins by introducing each commander of the “tired, ill-administered (Jacobite) force of less than 5,000 men” with a quick, heroic zoom from medium to close, in ironic counterpoint to Watkins’ sardonic narration:

Sir Thomas Sheridan, Jacobite military secretary. Suffering advanced debility and loss of memory. Former military engagement: 56 years ago. Sir John MacDonald, Jacobite captain of cavalry. Aged, frequently intoxicated, described as “a man of the most limited capacities.” John William O’ Sullivan, Jacobite quartermaster general. Described as “an Irishman whose vanity is superseded only by his lack of wisdom.” Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite commander in chief. Former military experience: 10 days at a siege at the age of 13.

This is less a critique of the Jacobite forces, though, than a denunciation of all ineffectual military leadership, putting the lives of soldiers on the line with no clear mandate or ability. Though Watkins criticizes both sides of the battle, he clearly sides with the rebels.

This doesn’t prevent him, however, from engaging in a brutal takedown of the Scottish clan system, which engaged in what he terms “human rent:” tenants were allowed to farm the chiefs’ land in return for fighting whenever he decreed. The men are threatened with having their homes and barns burned down if they refuse to fight. “All are dependent on this one man,” Watkins says as his probing camera swings around a landowner’s shoulder to look him directly in the face. The chief can only glance guiltily out of the side of his eye. This is the introduction of a trademark Watkins trope. In Watkins’ work, the proletariat are dignified through their refusal to cower before the camera’s piercing glare. They peer directly into it, often in full face, confident in the rightness of their cause. For Watkins, the camera, with its dispassionate, relentless gaze, reveals the truth before which the dishonest shrink. The venal, corrupt, and inhuman bourgeoisie are only ever able to look at it sideways, afraid of what it might discover. Though ingenuous and not particularly nuanced, it’s a subtle trope that Watkins has returned to again and again, and is key to understanding his cinematic methodology.

Watkins certainly spares no love for the British army, though, with its similarly unfair pay structures and ruthless treatment of their enemies. He calls it “a fraternity where the least pretension to learning, to piety, or to common morals would endanger the owner to be cashiered.” After the battle, the British companies scour the countryside, raping, pillaging, and “peacemaking.” They dehumanize the rebels with propaganda, deprive captured soldiers of food and care, or kill them outright.

Culloden is Watkins’ most playful film. Not only do the modern trappings of the pseudo-documentary connect the events of the film to contemporary wars like Vietnam, the form allows Watkins to re-inscribe the passion, emotion, and personality that are often lost in historical reconstructions. The humanization makes the ending all the more affecting, as the Jacobite leaders escape and are given honors while the foot soldiers are left to starve and die. King George II outlaws the tokens of Highlander Scots—tartans, music, worship, weaponry—and disbands the clan system. The camera tracks along a row of bedraggled soldiers’ faces as Watkins lists off the various ways in which the rebels were made to suffer. Blameless, in his eyes at least, they gaze unblinkingly into the camera. The actors become icons for the forgotten faces of history. “They have created a desert,” Watkins intones gravely, “and have called it peace.”

Watkins’ next film, 1965’s The War Game, which imagines a near-future nuclear attack near London, was banned by the BBC and not broadcast until 1985. Though the film went on to win the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Watkins was quickly souring on the British film and television industries. His next three films are also set in a dystopian near-future: 1967’s prophetic Privilege, about a manufactured pop singer named Steven Shorter who is used to selling everything from dog food to shopping centers to the Church of England, which was the last film Watkins made in the UK before a self-imposed exile that continues to this day; 1969’s The Gladiators, a sort of proto-Hunger Games from 1969; and 1971’s Punishment Park, which played at the Cannes Film Festival and imagines a totalitarian United States where subversives are hunted and killed by security forces as a training exercise.

All three films are systemic critiques. In his self-interview accompanying the DVD of The Gladiators, Watkins gives his definition of the “system” he is critiquing:

(A)ny hierarchical structure which is used by one group of human beings to govern and to hold other human beings in subservience. The structure brings with it a series of rules, conventions and understandings whereby those who are governed accept the system and allow it to rule. Sometimes the system is maintained by a regime of terror, sometimes by a regime of consumerism and compromise. The mass media play an essential role in propagating acceptance of either regime.

Watkins’ mass media critique was still largely subtextual in these three films, where Watkins seems more interested in oppressive organisms than in the communication structures that sustained them. The resulting critiques themselves often come off as diffuse and as formless as Watkins’ definition of the system, though the analysis remains pungent.

Though the pseudo-documentary La Commune bears many hallmarks of Culloden, at the opposite end of Watkins’ career—historical setting, anachronistic newsreel technique, black-and-white verité cinematography—its systemic and media critiques are indistinguishable from one another. The two actors portraying journalists for Commune TV say as much in their opening dialogue: the film deals “not only with the Paris Commune, but also the role of mass media in past and present society.” Before the story begins, the camera follows them around the set, their “workplace for the past 13 weeks.” The set has been left exactly how it was after the end of the last scene; the text of the narration “will be added a few months later.” Watkins is taking steps from the outset to ensure that the viewer never gets too emotionally invested. He also employs regular intertitles enumerating facts, figures, and context, a carryover from his 1987 anti-nuclear weapon documentary The Journey. Twenty-six minutes into the film, one of these intertitles reminds the viewer yet again that the scenes were filmed over 13 days, chronologically, mostly in 10-minute-long shots.

Watkins, perhaps as much for his cantankerousness as for his political intractability, has never gained a large following. He left England because his films kept getting banned, soft censorship plagued him throughout his career. La Commune was only broadcast once on French television, late on a Friday night while most people slept.

Yet The Universal Clock makes clear that La Commune is a revolutionary communal act in itself. The whole cast, including the children, engaged in exhaustive research and preparations for the filming. Many became radicalized as a result. The documentary shows an undocumented Algerian man struggling to express all his rage and sorrow in the few lines he gets in the film. It’s moving and sad and, paired with La Commune itself, once again reminds us of the human stakes of the telling of history. A different actor poses the questions that the filming inspired her to ask, and which are key to the political efficacy of Watkins’ work: “What is the role of the individual inside a collective?” “What freedom of speech do each of us have, yet also within a group?” “What is it to agree on an ideology but to allow for internal nuances and contradictions?” Many cast members express doubt that any sort of systemic change is possible, but their very presence is a gesture of hope and community.

Part II, in the next issue of the Advocate, will explore how Peter Watkins developed the most trenchant expression of his revolutionary ethos in his anti-nuclear weapons films, culminating in his nearly 15-hour masterpiece, 1987’s The Journey.


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