OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week I took a dip into a film I’ve had lying around on DVD since Christmas. This was the 1975 offering from Brownlow & Mollo, Winstanley. A story set in the aftermath of the English Civil War, the eponymous hero is Gerard Winstanley, pamphleteer and leader of a proto-communist group known to history, and to its own times, as The Diggers.

I’ve read quite a bit about the ECW, though not recently, and have visited the Burford churchyard where Leveller mutineers were shot…you can still see the bullet marks, allegedly, on the wall. The film, shot in black and white, with obsessive attention to period detail still shows its seventies’ origins. There’s something distinctly hippie about those Ranters and the amateur actors who played them, it turns out, were from a contemporary squat. They played themselves, with a little exaggeration, they say, in the ‘specials’. The English Revolution, as some have called it, was undoubtedly lost, and that it was is still critically important to the way we live today. Churchill is quoted as having said that the only thing you need to know about an Englishman is which side he would have stood on at Marston Moor (or perhaps Naseby). These days, perhaps it would be equally instructive to know if he (or she) knows which side the accidents of heredity, or political conviction would have placed them on.

The defeat of Winstanley gets a nuanced handling, and more than once during the film I was reminded of comments in Kate Fox’s Watching The English, which I’m sure I must have referred to before. Brownlow himself, I think, comments somewhere about how, in what he regards as an English way, everyone tries to handle the affair with respect and dignity, yet the fundamental rift between ‘property’ and ‘freedom’ eventually demands that one side utterly overcomes the other. At about the same time as Brownlow was making this, I, then a ‘mature’ – a sloppy use of language in retrospect – student, was spending a summer as an unpaid amateur actor in a BBC film club production of Beowulf (Dir: Don Fairservice, if memory serves.). That too was shot in black and white. Beowulf deflected the fiery breath of the monster with a shield made of beaten baked bean tins. Our helmets were of glass fibre, our Saxon clothes made out of old blankets. I wasn’t the Saxon with the wristwatch, by the way! Watching Winstanley the similarities of dress and acting style were not lost on me.

Brownlow first came to my attention for his restoration of Abel Gances pre World War One blockbuster Napoleon, a multi screen umpteen hour epic. It was shown on TV in the eighties, but I was on duty at a Probation Hostel at the time, and wasn’t that persuasive. He is more famous though, for the film he made when still in his teens, and which first brought him into collaboration with Mollo. This was It Happened Here, a story of the Nazi occupation of Britain. I haven’t tracked that one down yet, though I’ve got the little book he wrote about the making, and selling of it.

Winstanley has been restored by the BFI, which funded its original production. It is a moving film, and gave me at least the unsettling sense that I was watching not a historical piece, but a futuristic one. It’s the sort of film I might argue ought to be shown in every school in the country, but I doubt Mr Gove would agree.

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