Sunday 12 April 2009

Cromwell (1970)

Director: Ken Hughes
Stars: Richard Harris and Alec Guinness

As I begin to realise that Alec Guinness isn't just a great actor, he may just be the greatest of them all, TCM gifts me with a pair that I haven't seen before: 1962's Damn the Defiant! and 1970's Cromwell. He isn't Cromwell in the latter, that part going to Richard Harris who gets top billing, but Guinness plays the king, King Charles I. I'm no expert on the Civil War but this film would seem to play fast and loose with the reality of history. If I'm reading this correctly, about ten years of history is compressed into a week or so. Then again Cromwell has always been a controversial character: some see him as a harsh dictator and vicious military enforcer, others see him more as a hero of the people against tyranny.

This Cromwell is firmly in the latter camp. He's a champion of the rights of the people which he sees as being consistently trampled under the greed of King Charles I, a believer in the divine right of kings and thus a man who sees himself as above the government in every way. He's also rather upset about the attempts to corrupt the Protestant religion of the state with Catholicism, the religion of the queen. As our film begins, Cromwell, a Puritan member of parliament, is planning to leave his estates for the New World. Fellow MPs visit him and suggest treasonable things, but he is a loyal subject of the crown, however much he disagrees with the king.

Time changes his mind, though not a lot of time and not a lot of mind, it would seem. We're treated to a little political chicanery, but the suggestion is that the conflict known as the English Civil War was inevitable and all the speeches and manouevres were merely everyone's cards being played onto the table. So the King threatens, Parliament threatens in return and it all leads to the dissolution of Parliament and the beginning of war between King and Parliament.

This war is skimped over to a massive degree. I mentioned that I'm no expert on the Civil War but I remember some things from my school history lessons a couple of decades ago. We begin with an inconclusive Battle of Edgehill, which is fair enough, but then three years of history is apparently ignored entirely. While reality had the Royalists take the lead for a few victories, then get knocked back at Gloucester and hammered at Marston Moor, where Parliament took the north of England with the help of the Scots, all of this is forgotten in our film. The impression we're given here is that after Edgehill, Cromwell left to build a real army while the Earls of Essex and Manchester carried on for three years on his own, only for Cromwell to return and rout the Royalists at Naseby.

With the absence of any real history to speak of, the film by necessity falls back on its cinematic powers to achieve anything at all. Unfortunately there aren't enough in evidence to retore the balance after the history failed. The battles are mostly not there, though Edgehill is excellently done, mostly in that it isn't excellently done. As the first pitched battle of the war nobody really had a clue what they were doing, and that lack of pretty much anything is aptly depicted here. The sets are impressive, but that's rarely not the case in historical English films, whether made by English filmmakers or merely set shot in England by others.

The only thing that really impresses here is the acting. Richard Harris is superb as a principled and defiant man, steadfast in his faith to his church and his country. His performance simply cannot be ignored and he dominates over everyone else on the Parliamentary side, not least in the angry power of his eyes. However the man he plays only bears a slight resemblance to the real Cromwell and the idea of an Irishman playing Cromwell is simply preposterous. While he's a controversial man to the English, Cromwell is nigh on universally hated by the Irish. I wonder what Harris saw in the part.

Guinness is similarly excellent as the king. I've read that his is the only really historically accurate portrayal in the film and I know nowhere near enough to comment on that. He doesn't dominate the way Harris does but he's unmistakeably the lynchpin of the royalist side. He makes his mark not through force of personality, though the way he moves is perfect, but through more subtle means. Mostly it has to do with his accent, a weak Scots that becomes more pronounced with strength of words, combined with a mild stutter. It's also to do with his arrogance, that unfaltering belief in his divine right to rule, which manifests itself in the way he moves and even the way he strokes his moustache while listening to charges brought against him by Parliament.

Backing them up are a whole host of recognisable names who provide worthy support. Most obvious are Robert Morley as a sanctimonious Earl of Manchester and Timothy Dalton as a flamboyant and blissfully arrogant Prince Rupert, the King's cousin, but these are only a few of many. Actors of the stature of Patrick Wymark, Patrick Magee, Charles Gray and Nigel Stock make the cast a notable one. It's only sad that such names were not given better material to work with.

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