Sunday, 15 March 2015

Winstanley (1976)

Winstanley is an exceedingly tough film to review or indeed form an opinion about.




It goes without saying that my socialist sympathies mean I am biased towards the story of Gerrard Winstanley and the 17th century egalitarian movement known as The Diggers or The True Levellers. This group represented the voice of the common people and believed that the land should belong to every person to work upon to sustain their own self by the sweat of their brow. In short, as Winstanley said, 'The earth was made to be a common treasury for all'. 

It was in 1649 that Winstanley led his group made up of poor families with no land of their own -  and thereby nothing to sustain themselves with - to unused common land at St George's Hill, Surrey where they proceeded to farm it and live off it. From there he began to produce pamphlets of his writing, explaining his agrarian socialist beliefs and his desire to reform social order and create and give power to rural communities who believed in equality.  However their occupation of the free land soon incensed local landowners such as Francis Drake (not the Francis Drake of The Armada I hasten to add) and following his petitioning of the government on this matter, Cromwell's New Model Army, headed up by Sir Thomas Fairfax, arrived to intervene. 

Unfortunately for Drake, Fairfax found The Diggers harmless and suggested he take his concerns to the courts. Not to be defeated, Drake did just that, but also used underhand methods such as employing gangs to attack St George's Hill and Winstanley's comrades doling out beatings and committing arson on the communal houses.  

When the case arrived at court, The Diggers were forbidden from voicing their own defence and sentenced as Ranters, a radical sect practicing liberal sexuality. The court case was subsequently found in Drake and his fellow landowners favour and The Diggers were told to leave their land or face forcible eviction from the army.

Whilst subsequent attempts to continue their way of life in other areas were met with further hostility and evictions,  their influence was beginning to be felt in other areas and similar settlements sprung up in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, and by the 1960s the notion had even travelled across the Atlantic to San Francisco where a group calling themselves The San Francisco Diggers gave away for free food, stock, medical aid, transport and housing. Winstanley's beliefs and actions continue to be felt in the present day also, a precursor to squatting, self suffiency and communalism. I would certainly argue that, given the current climate, his views are just as valid today as they were in 1649 and may even become more valid if the economy continues its downfall.




The film, based on David Caute's book Comrade Jacob, is somewhat episodic, based on Winstanley's own tracts and was directed by the film historian Kevin Brownlow and the historical costumier Andrew Mollo. An amateur production, and unable to acquire funding, the film took a year to make, with shooting taking place at weekends, as and when the cast were available. Only one professional actor is in attendance, Jerome Willis as General Fairfax, whilst schoolteacher Miles Halliwell takes the central role of  Winstanley. 





It is this amateurism that I find troublesome, line deliveries are naturally flat or on occasion unintentionally amusing. It's not a particularly easy watch in terms of drama and content and I feel particularly bothered that Halliwell depicts Winstanley as an RP speaking intellectual showing the way for the masses when in actual fact the real Gerrard Winstanley was from the North West of England, Wigan in point of fact, the town up the road from where I live.




And yet its amateurism is belied by some truly beautiful cinematography, much of which clearly emulates Sergei Eisenstein (the opening battle scene between Roundheads and Cavaliers is accompanied by Prokofiev’s score for the director's 1938 classic Alexander Nevsky) and the location shooting which perfectly recreates the 1600s and an England struggling to survive post-Civil war. The rural landscape is wonderfully captured in black and white (and clearly influenced Ben Wheatley for his A Field In England) so as to be almost tangible. 





Equally effective is the quintessentially English soundscape, with the calls of the birds and the strong howling winds all captured authentically creating a very real sense of time and place.  This may essentially be am-dram but it is far from an incompetent, slipshod production in these terms. 




Despite garnering some critical acclaim, Brownlow and Mollo never directed another feature together primarily because the British film industry was on the wane and also because they were too hard to pigeonhole. Winstanley is not a full blown artistic period drama like Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, nor is it a full on quasi-documentary film like Peter Watkins' Culloden. Winstanley is a one off for all its strengths and its weaknesses, and in many ways perhaps that's for the best.




If you're interested but not sure if you can commit to the film, Billy Bragg tells the same story brilliantly with his cover of the song The World Turned Upside Down



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