The uncelebrated genius of Peter Watkins

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watkinsI borrowed a phrase from the film critic Michael Atkinson for my headline, because I agree with his assessment of the current position of the 77-year-old creator of “The War Game,” “Culloden,” “Edvard Munch” and several other modern classics that are known by too few movie buffs.

Peter Watkins first made a name for himself in the 1960s as a director of documentaries for the BBC. Perhaps frustrated by the limits of fact-based films, Watkins began to make dramatized documentaries. The director’s first major effort in this new genre — “Culloden” (1964) — was widely acclaimed for its startling use of documentary film techniques in the presentation of the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

The BBC commissioned Watkins to follow “Culloden” with another pseudo-documentary that would show the impact of a nuclear war on England. The results were so strong that government officials forced the BBC to cancel the airing of the film.

watkins2“The War Game” went on to have a long and powerful life as a theatrical film (I saw it on a double-bill with a revival of “Dr. Strangelove” in 1968). In a bizarre but happy event for Watkins, the filmmaker received an Oscar for “best documentary film.”

The publicity for “The War Game” earned Watkins a studio gig, the 1967 Universal production of “Privilege” (below), about the exploitation of a rock singer by the British government and religious leaders.

Again using a semi-documentary style — and rocker Paul Jones in the lead — the movie was an intriguing social satire that divided critics and audiences and never made back the studio’s investment.

From that point on, Watkins wandered the world making films where he has been able to secure financing, including several projects in Scandinavia. The 1973 bio-pic “Edvard Munch” is one of the best dramas about the life of an artist that I’ve ever seen, but it was so poorly distributed that it has no listing in the encyclopedic Leonard Maltin “Movie Guide.”

Things may be changing, however.

New Yorker Films put out a five DVD Watkins set a few years ago and the director’s rarely seen 1970 feature “Punishment Park” (above) has been shown on the Sundance Channel.

“Punishment Park” is a chilling docudrama about the government and police response to radical Vietnam War protestors. Just as “The War Game” speculated about what post-nuclear war life might be like, Watkins’s 1970 film is set in a post-martial law America in which student protestors are sent to an experimental law enforcement facility known as Punishment Park.

The student radicals are given the choice of extended jail time or a three-day survival odyssey in the desert under pursuit by armed National Guardsmen.

Watkins makes everything look real and the director has said that he often feared during filming that real violence would erupt among his nonprofessional actors.

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Joe Meyers

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