English filmmaker Peter Watkins, revered in cineaste circles if little known outside them, is in his early 70s now and hasn’t made a movie since 2000. Yet never has his work been more relevant: Pics like “The Gladiators” (1969) and “Punishment Park” (1971) presciently touch on reality TV, our increasing dependence on computers, the war on terror and the Iraq conflict. New Yorker, which has been releasing his work on DVD, grouped equally timely “The War Game” (1965) and “Culloden” (1964) on one disc. Commentaries accompany Walker’s first two professional efforts, but the prints are far from pristine.
Recent events in North Korea and Iran make watching “The War Game” especially chilling. The Oscar-winning docudrama examines the after-effects of a nuclear war in Britain. Though produced by the BBC, it was kept off U.K. TV for 20 years. No wonder: its graphic depictions of radiation sickness and the effects of martial law possess disturbing power even today.
“Culloden,” also produced by the BBC, probes war’s impact from a fantastical premise, filming the last pitched battle on British soil — Culloden in 1746 — as a docu. There, 9,000 troops loyal to George II routed 5,000 Highlanders fighting for a Stuart restoration. But the film is no standard-issue history lesson. Often observed from the grunts’ p.o.v., it uses war and its aftermath to explore social injustice.
The commentaries, each from a British academic, suit the material. Patrick Murphy dissects “The War Game” with soothing avuncularity. And John Cook, a Watkins scholar, peppers his remarks on “Culloden” with both professional expertise and personal insights.
Scratches, spots and speckles mar much of the footage, but it’s unclear whether that represents cheapness on the part of the distributor or an attempt to preserve the atmosphere Watkins clearly prized. Visual splendor was never a goal for either film. Regardless, the lack of restoration in no way subtracts from the pics’ continued value.