by Allan Fish
(UK 1975 95m) DVD1/2
Common treasury of livelihood
p Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo d Kevin Brownlow w Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo novel “Comrade Jacob” by David Caute ph Ernest Vincze ed Sarah Ellis m Sergei Prokofiev art Andrew Mollo cos Carmen Mollo
Miles Halliwell (Gerrard Winstanley), Jerome Willis (Gen.Fairfax), Terry Higgins (Tom Haydon), Phil Oliver (Will), David Bramley (Parson Platt), Alison Halliwell (Mrs Platt),
What it is that attracted me to Winstanley and its subject, the real-life leader of the Diggers in post Civil-War England, is not immediately obvious. Perhaps it has something to do with my heritage, for there was a namesake, one Simon Fish, who became somewhat infamous for publishing a Supplication of Beggars of 1529, aimed at no less daunting a target as Henry VIII. Simon died of plague before he could be burned for heresy, but he was singing if not from the same hymnsheet then certainly from the same book of hymns as Winstanley a century or so later. And if that’s not enough of a link, there’s Winstanley himself; we know he was baptised in Wigan in 1609, and it was there one cold February day 365 years later, where yours truly’s forehead was so anointed. There’s my own six degrees of separation.
Winstanley tells the story of how Gerrard Winstanley led a peaceful protest to the sins of buying and selling, setting up a righteous community where everything was produced for the common good and there was no want. In an England ruled by Parliament and prior to Cromwell taking up the Protectorate, loyalties to each other were tested, the self-styled Diggers were made up of the same men who fought on the side of parliament in the war. Indeed, one of the few sympathetic to their cause was famous Parliamentary General Thomas Fairfax. However, the forces of the law uphold that they are trespassers and have them evicted and their community is disbanded.
As Dickens himself might have said, it was the best of times and the worst of times. The king was gone, but anarchy and disorder reigned in his place before the interregnum was given stability under Cromwell’s Lord Protectorate. And no other film in my memory has captured the past with such absolute clarity as Brownlow and Mollo’s. The acting style may have alienated many at the time, but the very fact that the cast aren’t acting, let alone actors, helps gives it an inescapable authenticity. Besides, Brownlow was always primarily a master of visuals over words, a silent film master born half a century too late for the art-form he belonged to. Take the editing and shooting of the opening battle salvo, shot on such a low budget armies seems to number literally in the dozens, but the frenetic cutting evokes that of Eisenstein without even considering his use of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky themes to illustrate it. Meanwhile, the final inferno that puts paid to the Diggers has its own influences, most directly those of Brownlow’s beloved Abel Gance, and visually, though it’s impossible to compare films of the 1920s with one of the 1970s, there’s a tangible, unmistakeable aroma of such German films of the silent era as Von Gerlach’s The Chronicle of the Grey House and Murnau’s The Burning Soil, though both were presumed lost when Brownlow made the film.
It still exerts an influence today; the battle sequences were borrowed for Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, while Brownlow also doffs his hat to his contemporary Peter Watkins. The photography looks as gorgeously stark as 35mm monochrome could possibly be (Vincze became a major cinematographer on the small screen, where he shot Shooting the Past among others before becoming the main DP on the resurrected Doctor Who). But I leave the best summation to Jonathan Rosenbaum, who observed “there’s not much to be said for Winstanley, except that it is the most mysteriously beautiful English film since the best of Michael Powell.” And if Brownlow’s struggle to find funding for his and Mollo’s films saw him make no more features, it was as a cine-historian, a one-man campaigner for the preservation of the silent cinema, that he would receive such accolades as the French Legion d’Honneur; so where’s his knighthood?