Sunday 24 March 2013

Winstanley (1975)

It so happens that I like the message and the style of the occupy movement, whose camps could be found in most every city in late 2011, most conspicuously in New York, allowing the city to finally cast off the gloom of 9-11 and be about something new and more positive.  They were a visible sign of the people's dissatisfaction with the growing gap between the rich and the poor - heck, between the uber-rich and everybody else.  They made novel use of public space to oppose corporate personhood, made myriad inequalities harder to ignore, and put a public face, indeed many public faces, to those angered by certain unpunished or unpunishable villainies committed by banks, managers and ostensible 'wealth creators'.

They still do these things, though the camps are gone.  They're considered less newsworthy, but haven't gone away.  In their prime, I did what I could to furnish the movement with both moral and material support, here and in the States, and I'm trying to keep an eye on their continuing operations.  This 1975 film regards the Cromwell-era occupy movement, the Levellers, or the Diggers as they became known, led by the charismatic Gerrard Winstanley.  It's a true story, by the way.

Gerrard Winstanley burns a court summons

Just to give a very brief bit of historical context: this is shortly after Henry VIII, Queens Mary and Elizabeth, William Shakespeare, Kings James (of the Bible translation) and Charles I (of the decapitation).  The Civil War has just happened, and Oliver Cromwell is on the throne, sort of.  Despite this new age of kingless Puritanism, society hasn't really been levelled at all.  There's still a despot at the top of a hierarchy of lords, with the poor no better off than before the revolution.  (When Cromwell dies, some decades after the events of this film, Britain, rather embarrassingly, asks to have its monarchs back, and it's as if nothing has changed, but that's another century for another movie - probably with a lot of wigs in it).

So anyway, it's 1649, and Gerrard Winstanley has published a manifesto, 'The New Law of Righteousness', and has set up a camp, a commune of sorts, on common lands.  The lands sort-of belong to everybody (hence 'common'), but actually belong to Sir Francis Drake (who isn't that Sir Francis Drake, before you ask).  As we see, Drake doesn't like the idea of social levelling because (so he says) if there are no poor people, then he won't be able to keep to the Biblical precept of charity.  And while the lands are meant for common grazing of animals, the Diggers, led by Winstanley, are digging to grow their crops, and have built huts.  And this sort of thing is just not on.

Gerrard Winstanley again, because I like his face.

Winstanley's vision is simple and sensible: there's enough land in Britain for everybody to have some, so by farming the common land, nobody need go hungry; everybody just needs a little bit of land, and there's enough to go round.  This was apparently still true by the 70s, and unless the population is very much higher today, may still hold.  'Unemployment' as we think of it now didn't exist back then, and all you needed was a bit of space to plant barley, cut down some trees and build a hut and you had all the food and shelter you needed, like Minecraft or 'The Good Life'.  Despite this commendable aim, however, the camp is in terminal decline almost as soon as we see it.  Disgruntled locals, incited by a local parson, keep destroying the crops, meaning the camp cannot prosper.

I find there to be something compellingly watchable about the face of Gerrard Winstanley, at least as he's played here by Miles Halliwell.  He exudes a goodness, a niceness that I don't think I've quite seen anywhere else, and, though this is not a cheery film, every time the hope-filled Winstanley appears on screen everything seems brighter and better.  Though it all ends badly, I think I could probably pull myself out of a glum mood by watching this film for this performance.  Halliwell, like most of the cast, is not a professional actor.  His only other screen credit is for 'It Happened Here' (1964), by the same writer/director, in which he played a Nazi apologist teacher.  It's a pity he never got to play Jesus, as he would have been the best.

General Fairfax drops in.  Men ought still to style themselves so.

The only professional actor in the film is Jerome Willis as General Fairfax.  If you know your Pertwee Doctor Who, you'll recognise Willis from 'The Green Death' (1973) in which he played the manager of Global Chemicals.  His performance here as Fairfax is quite different, and the sight of him with the sharp beard and magnificent hair of the 17th century upper crust is an image to treasure.  Fairfax is an interesting character (and, I suppose, was an interesting person).  He's the highest authority seen in the film, and seems both wise and intelligent, not joining with the general condemnation of the camp, but listening open-minded to everything Winstanley has to say.  He comes across as gracious, like a good headmaster who has a genuine knowledge of all his pupils, an understanding of their motives and a love of fairness.

While there are no real villains here, as everybody seems to have a fairly reasonable motivation for their actions, David Bramley's Parson Platt is fairly close to the stereotype we hold of the puritans: the dearth of humour, the sexual jealousy and repression, the gaunt face of a sad panda; Gerrard Winstanley is far closer to the actual Puritan ideal, that of keeping God at the centre of every action and motivation, of breaking down clericalism, sacerdotalism and human hierarchy and making a beautiful and simple society in which to live and worship.  Platt, if understandable, is a horrible jerk.  The Christianity Winstanley espouses and practices is very appealing, honest, humble and gladdening.  The impression is very much that his society would have worked if those frightened by such proto-communism hadn't repeatedly taken to violence to suppress it.  Winstanley's Diggers movement collapsed, in the end, but was resurrected in the 1960s.  Noted '60s and '70s protestor and digger Sid Rawle appears in this film as a ranter, who joins Winstanley's camp mainly to mess around, burn Bibles and harass women.  Just as the story is tilting toward its bleak conclusion, Rawle's character takes his clothes off and runs around naked making a hulaballoo, and gives the characters a good laugh, at last.

An old woman laughs at a penis.

What is often said about the film, and rightly, is that it feels like it was really shot at the time it was set.  There's a documentary realism to it, and there's nothing here to tell you this is a mid-seventies production.  While a lot of Winstanley's dialogue is lifted from his writings, much of the dialogue and action has the spontaneous feel of improvisation.  Sights are seen that I expect far more from real life than from the movies: time is taken while trees are cut down and huts constructed, and when one of the men is trying to construct the side of a building a friend of his bothers him by repeatedly touching him on the head with a long piece of grass.  When it rains heavily, we have a lingering shot of one of the Diggers with a damp bogey dangling from his nose.  In the early and brief sequence of a Civil War battle, the directors borrowed real Civil War armour from the royal armouries, as it was cheaper and more convincing than making it new.  It feels very genuine, under all that fine word's meanings, and it's a real pity that there aren't more films with the feel of 'Winstanley'.

I really like this film, and having seen it a couple of times and read a little further, really like Gerrard Winstanley too, so am failing (as I may when I come to write up 1959's 'Ben-Hur' at Easter) to restrain my enthusiasms.  I suspect I've gone on for more paragraphs than I ought, and shall stop here so as not to try your patience any further, dear reader.

Available on DVD, or as one of the rather fine BFI flipside releases which contain both a DVD and a blu-ray disc, and so are ideal if you want to watch these fine pictures in the highest quality while retaining the ability to put a DVD version in your computer to extract screen-captures.

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