(directors/writers: Kevin Brownlow/Andrew Mollo; screenwriter: from novel “Comrade Jacob” by David Caute; cinematographer: Ernest Vincze; editor: Sarah Ellis; cast: Miles Halliwell (Gerrard Winstanley), Jerome Willis (General Fairfax), David Bramley (Parson Platt), Dawson France (Capt. Gladman), Phil Dunn (Commune member), Terry Higgins (Tom Haydon), Alison Halliwell (Mrs. Platt), Phil Oliver (William Everard), Sid Rawle (Ranter); Runtime: 96; Milestone; 1975-UK)
“The poetic dream of Winstanley for an equitable and more reasonable world, one that is not forged by malice and greed: that is a vision the world is still waiting to see actually happen.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Winstanley is a truly amazing and painstaking account of misery, as it depicts those whose cause is righteous and nonviolent. Winstanley evokes the civil war mood of the mid 1600s – where Cromwell’s parliamentary forces defeat and behead the king to only find that there is a second bloody civil war where the levellers, those who wanted a share in the land, are crushed by Cromwell, thereby ending a shortlived optimism that things for the poor will change for the better. The narrative is taken from the pamphlet writings of Gerrard Winstanley a gentle, Christian radical. He sort of resembles a hippie of the 1970s. The film is based on the book by David Caute, “Comrade Jacob,” but has been thoroughly reworked by co-directors Brownlow and Mollo.
In April 1649, at St. George’s Hill in Surrey, England, a Reformation-era religious sect of about 40 called the Diggers form a commune and till the soil on “common land,” which by law permits grazing – but not settlement and cultivation. Gerrard Winstanley (Miles Halliwell), the leader of the Diggers, wanted to reclaim the land for the poor who had been dispossessed by Oliver Cromwell’s recent civil war. Unfortunately, the local landowners saw the Diggers as a threat to their livelihood and way of life, and led by the stern Presbyterian parson, John Platt (Bramley), use local thugs and government troops to violently uproot the Digger commune.
Brownlow is by no means a great filmmaker, he is more known for his books: “The Parade’s Gone By”/”Behind the Mask of Innocence,” and for his English TV series on the silent-era: Hollywood, Unknown Chaplin, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius. His unique filming style, his penchant for austerity, his demand for authenticity, his equalizing of all scenes in importance so that no event sticks out from the others, and his inspired devotion toward looking at the past, perhaps hoping to unearth some missing piece in the puzzle of mankind that keeps the modern world from advancing on the past tragedies, gives this film an air of adventure. Lacking the necessary dramatics of films that are more accessible to the general public, this film is nonetheless a work of great intrigue and visual beauty. Despite being filmed without the benefit of professional actors, the only professional being Jerome Willis who played General Fairfax, this film has a certain solemnity about it that forces its truths to be seen in the face of the actors. It is Brownlow’s way of filming such misery, a way that records the Diggers’ sufferings as if it were the official record of what happened and probably could pass for what is official, that makes the film so compelling. This lesson in history that is re-created from the words of a journal, allows the directors to look back at the past with a sense of reverence.
This film acts as a vehicle to understand what the Diggers believed and how they lived, and how they justly thought that the earth was made common property for everyone. That everyone born on earth shall be fed by it and that all are equals in the Creation. So when Winstanley says: “Our life is a hard one” we can see for ourselves what he meant. In real life the actor who played Winstanley, Miles Halliwell, was a teacher. He read Caute’s book and recommended it to Brownlow, thereby securing the part. His performance was beautifully done.
Most of the nonprofessionals actors were locals hired because of their 17th century look. Sid Rawle plays a Ranter; they upset the Diggers with their contempt for the Bible and made them feel uncomfortable when they entered their commune. Rawle is from the New Diggers, a modern day commune that is interested in squatter’s rights. Andrew Mollo, a military historian, was asked to help with the costumes and then collaborated on the script and direction. His father donated the land where the filming took place.
The original Diggers no longer exist, having evolved into the modern day Quakers.
This low-budget project sponsored by the BFI, which put up seventeen thousand pounds, achieved the maximum in having an authentic look even showing the rare breeds of animals there were at the time. It showed breeds of pigs and chickens that don’t exist today but did during the 17th century. The film took 8-years to finish, but the actual shooting was done in 7-weeks. The cast had day jobs and therefore the filming had to be done over an extended period of time. The film’s cost is about the same as a James Bond film’s title scene would cost. The film’s cinematographer, Ernest Vincze, like almost everyone in the film, including the directors, worked for nothing. He would often be gone to take high paying jobs in another film before returning.
This little known event in English history, the first “communist” revolt in history, was re-created in a straight-forward fashion, telling what went wrong and why it failed by 1651. It doesn’t pretend to have the answers but the questions it raises about the ability of mankind to live and work together, is one worth asking.
The message of the film might seem naive or confrontational to many, including the Marxists, the bourgeoisie, the film critics looking for a more recognizable kind of film to evaluate, and the common man, bored by what he doesn’t want to know. But to others, perhaps the more restless in society, not afraid of ideas, there is a freshness in this work that you can’t easily shrug off by pointing to the filmmaker’s refusal to be more melodramatic. The scenes were acted with conviction and its lack of Hollywood type of poshness actually played to its favor, making the action seem more pertinent.
The Diggers’ song attests to the idealism they sought: “You poor take courage, you rich take care, This Earth was made a Common Treasury for everyone to share, All things in common, all people one.”
Leon Rosselson “The Diggers’ Song”
The Diggers worked the rough soil amid a hostile surrounding; they were unprotected and harassed by the followers of the law. Their story is captured in the black-and-white framed shots taken by a hand-held camera. Their uncompromising idealism squares off against self-righteous forces that wanted to crush them, afraid of their new visions for mankind. Try comparing Winstanley to other period films about class struggle of the commercial variety, and it is hard not to see how much more real and meaningful this film is. If nothing else, at least, it is a hard film to forget. The poetic dream of Winstanley for an equitable and more reasonable world, one that is not forged by malice and greed: that is a vision the world is still waiting to see actually happen.
REVIEWED ON 2/19/2000 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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