McCullin the man is a real, live, photographic legend, best known for portraits of war. McCullin the film is a documentary that presents the man and his work and so doing attempts to throw some light on the shaping of a photographer whose images can credibly claim to have altered the thinking of a generation. Don McCullin brought the stories of the real victims of war onto the front pages in graphic and unflinching detail.
By its very nature, this is a disturbing film. McCullin has survived in more war zones than could possibly be considered healthy and the pictures he brought back graphically expose the madness, the savagery and the undiluted greed of the exponents. There are a number of very disturbing themes running through this film – not least the one that suggests we’re never that far away from a war, there’s always one just around the corner. We’d like to think that’s no longer true, but Iraq and Afghanistan suggest powerfully that nothing has changed.
McCullin the man comes across as articulate, erudite, modest and thoughtful. A man of profound integrity who his editor, Harold Evans memorably describes as “a conscience with a camera”. What separates him from other war photographers appears to be a combination of two things – a mastery of composition and anticipation verging on genius and a level of empathy that was never truly crushed by his experiences. That in itself is remarkable when you consider he shared those experiences with men whose psyches were damaged permanently by those same visions.
The film covers the early years and the viewer gets a real glimpse of a man for whom doors opened in a sequence that propelled him into some of the most horrific and hellish experiences the human race has to offer. Where others took their shots and fled, McCullin exploited the opportunities and became by his own admission something of a “War Junkie”. Extracts from the Parkinson show in the seventies, are fascinating, displaying a man grappling with his reality, with reconciling those things he has seen and done with celebrity and normal life.
It does not surprise me that in his later years, McCullin has devoted himself to landscape photography, documenting his Somerset home in his book “Open Skies”. That they are Monochromes possessed of a brooding sense of impermanence seems inevitable. He talks of fearing that England is dying every time he hears the buzz of a developer’s saw or the crack of a sportsman’s gun. It seems as though he has come full circle, seen the horror of man at war and made the connection with the havoc we wreak in our own backyard.
I left the cinema feeling very humble. Not just because my own photography seems so trivial in comparison, but because here is a man who perhaps more than anyone else on the planet is the living embodiment of the Rutger Hauer monologue from Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”