FROM THE ARCHIVE: CULLODEN (1964)

The internet is a magical kingdom without copyright in which middleaged--in my case, interpreted loosely--men can search for lost time.  At least when they're not searching for porn.

Somewhere in the back of my mind was a half-memory of a documentary about the Battle of Culloden I'd seen sometime in the later years of high school.  And with a few cranks of the YouTube hurdy-gurdy, hey presto, up it popped.  And remarkably, despite production values that now seem laughable, it has withstood the test of time.  And then some.

The underlying facts are bleak.  The Jacobites--Latin for "Jamesian," sort of--were die-hard adherents of the House of Stuart, luckless kings of Scotland who inherited the throne of England in 1603 and almost willfully proceeded to screw it up.  James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland) managed not to get blown up in the Gunpowder Plot.  His son, Charles I, however, turned popular discontent with the monarchy into outright rebellion and violated so many truces and peace deals afterwards that Parliament was left with no choice but to cut his head off.  His son, Charles II, spent the next eleven years in exile and marked his return to power with a plague and the Great Fire.  Despite a dozen-odd illegitimate children--ancestors of several modern dukes--he somehow avoided impregnating his wife.  Thus his brother James II became king.

James was a Catholic.  This was a problem.  England had been Protestant since Henry VIII, except for a brief interregnum under his Catholic daughter Mary, who liked setting non-Catholics on fire.  The great powers of Europe--France and Spain--were Catholic.  The English associated Rome with tyranny and poverty.  Hence they were antsy when they found themselves with the first Catholic monarch in a hundred and fifty years.

They got antsier when James started removing legal limits on Catholics in public life.  And then bringing priests into the palaces.  And Catholics into government.  When his wife gave birth to a male heir--assuring a Catholic dynasty--the rich Protestant nobility decided enough was too much.  In the Glorious Revolution of 1688 they drove James off the throne, without firing a shot, replacing him with William and Mary, the latter being James' Protestant daughter by an earlier marriage, the former his son-in-law and hereditary ruler--Staatholder, not quite King--of uberprostestant and anti-French Holland.  Hooray!

William and Mary died without children, as did Anne, Mary's sister, to whom the crown had passed on William's death.  When Anne joined the Choir Invisible, that left the aforesaid rich Protestant nobles in a pickle.  The only remaining members of the House of Stuart were the son of James II--raised at the French court and calling himself "James III"--and the hyperintelligent, sophisticated, and most important, Protestant Electress of Hanover, Sophia.

Don't ask what an Electress is.  This has already gone on too long.

Sophia, unfortunately, died a few days before Anne.  The throne therefore passed to her thuggish son, who became George I of Great Britain and Ireland.  He never really learned English and spent as little time as possible in his new kingdoms.  Which was fine with the rich Protestant nobles, who used his absence to set up a modern parliamentary system, banking, insurance, and all the other blessings of liberty.

The Jacobites didn't take this lying down.  In 1698 James II tried to get his old job back through an invasion of Ireland.  The result was a country-style beat-down at the Battle of the Boyne, still celebrated by dimwitted Ulstermen in bowlers and orange sashes every June.   His son attempted the same in England when his aunt Anne died in 1715.  

But in 1745 shit got real.  George II was king.  James III's son--James II's grandson--Prince Charles Edward Casimir, landed in Scotland and rapidly gathered around him a large and passionate force of Catholic Highland aristocrats and their semifeudal followers.  Bonnie Prince Charlie got as far south into England as Derbyshire in a thrust towards London and the crown.  

Didn't work.  Beaten in England, Charlie retreated north into Scotland, eventually deciding to make a stand at a barren moor--is there any other kind?--called Culloden.  Through spectacular mismanagement Charlie got his army butchered by royal troops under George II's younger son, the Duke of Cumberland.   

Wait, weren't we talking about a movie?  We were.

This 1964 BBC production is what we would now call a mockumentary--it features real-time  interviews with real and imagined participants, including Prince Charlie, Lord George Sackville, Highland farmers forced to fight, and British regular army privates.  More importantly, it includes painstakingly accurate portrayals of the squalor and brutality of eighteenth century warfare.  One of my pet peeves has long been the cinematic convention of showing pre-modern artillery shells exploding on impact, as would a present-day mortar round.  In fact, that isn't how it worked at all--through the Civil War, cannons fired what amounted to three-to twelve-pound bullets that did their damage not by exploding, but by bursting bodies apart through direct impact.  They were still lethal after a couple of bounces.  Culloden does a better job of showing that than anything I've ever seen.

And the movie is equally eloquent with Culloden's tragic aftermath.  Bonnie Prince Charlie's collapse gave the English a long-awaited opportunity to take care of business--the destruction of the clans.  Culloden shows a Highland culture that was so tribal as to verge on the prehistoric.  You held your land through your chief, and when called upon to do so, you fought for him, usually against another clan that had stolen your cattle or raped your wife.

But not this time.  You were fighting British regulars.  And when it was over they were pretty intent on making sure they didn't have to deal with you again.  The days after the battle saw the slaughter of the wounded and captive; the weeks after, their families.  And in the year after, the systematic deconstruction of their society--banning the wearing of the kilt, the weaving of the plaid, the speaking of gaelic.  

Despite its flaws--as noted above, by modern standard, the film is almost childishly crude--Culloden is a lucid and moving testament to a dirty episode in the rise of modern society.  Watch it.  After all, it's free!