The Freethinker: A Protean Rebel Returns to the Present Tense


No cinephiles, if asked to enumerate the world’s greatest living filmmakers from their front-brains, would think to conjure up the cry-in-the-wilderness presence of Peter Watkins. And yet there may be no one in the medium as honest, independent, intellectually rigorous, politically prescient, and utterly intolerant of cinema’s systemic compromises. Certainly, only Godard could be considered as protean an interrogator—of both social power structures and the sign-and-meaning experience of film itself.

The Anthology retro, the most thorough ever launched in the U.S., is an event precisely because of the British-born Watkins’s notorious intransigence. Always on the move globally and forever at war with producers, distributors, and governments, he has been the victim of neglect and active suppression, and his oeuvre has proven nearly impossible to obtain and exhibit in its entirety. (The series is short two features, both Scandinavian TV movies from 1975: The Seventies People and The Trap.) A factor in this ersatz marginalization may be Watkins’s pioneering structural tool—faux-verité documentary—which he feels free to disarmingly transmute into authentic nonfiction at whim, and which gives his political thrust an unambiguous, present-tense torque. Watkins’s first BBC film, Culloden (1964), placed appalled cameramen at the site of the Jacobite combat of 1745; his next, The War Game (1966), banned by the BBC for 20 years, reaped one of the strangest Oscars ever awarded (Best Documentary, for a fully scripted, acted featurette) and sent Watkins into exile.

A speculative analysis of nuclear devastation based upon the British government’s own cost analysis and contingency plans, The War Game may have been the Cold War’s most sociopolitically vital film. Watkins went further into the near future, establishing himself as a shoot-the-wounded oracle of anti-authoritarian outrage: Privilege (1967) and The Gladiators (1969) both explored the role of entertainment media in controlling the masses, presaging hundreds of dystopian movies but more amazingly predicting the corporatized pandemic of demi-fascist rock-star objectification, reality TV, broadcast sports, and punditry. Punishment Park (1971), on the other hand, forecast an Ashcroftian black op for the Nixon era; reportedly, the non-pro actors on both sides of this execute-the-dissidents rave got so deep into the conflict that Watkins worried about real bullets being surreptitiously used.

Everything’s a don’t-miss, from Watkins’s visionary biopic Edvard Munch (1974) and the rare Danish-strike nerve-racker Evening Land (1977) to The Journey (1987), the 15-hour doc epic (doled out in six hunks) for which Watkins interviewed and filmed his way around the world in search of human peace. Much discussed in these pages last year, La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2001)—a return to mock-doc-ness and forgotten history—is merely the most passionate and eloquent progressive-values film ever made.