March 21, 2009

Winstanley

Gerard Winstanley was an English radical who thrived in the immediate aftermath of Charles I's execution. His acts have become famous because the group that Winstanley led- the Diggers- were a communalist group that held property in common. Many have therefore seen Winstanley as a proto communist of some sort. The 1975 film about Winstanley falls into some of these traps: but it avoids them mainly and it as a work of historical filming it is actually fairly impressive. The detail of the history is less important than the impression that the film makes, the argument of the camera which is the key to the film is double: it shows Winstanley's radicalism and the conditions against which he campaigned and argued.

The figure of Winstanley in the film does have good features. The script is largely taken from Winstanley's own works, recited over the action, and at points the film almost becomes a silent film, in which the words are like captions rather than being, as in most modern films, part of the scenario. Where that happens, the film actually works. The words of Winstanley give one a pretty good impression of what the radical believed: that he was not a communist but an agrarian communalist, that he was not a secular socialist but a religious libertarian. The film captures Winstanley's view of Winstanley- it makes him a saintly presense- and where he is shown interacting with others, he isn't showing expressing any impatience or violence. He sagely stands aside from the action- even when he talks to other characters- carrying himself with dignity like a seventeenth century Gandhi. Winstanley probably was not like that. But having his words at least- though they are excerpted words and so for example ideas about the Norman yoke and some of the religious ideas are diminished- having his words means that the film represents Winstanley's ideas fairly well or distorts them less than it might.

The second strain of the film is to show the conditions in which Winstanley operated. The most impressive part of this film is the photography. The opening sequence, jagged shots of battle in the war, are stunningly done. They convey the chaos and terror of battle in the civil war: having read many accounts of battle, I think soldiers' experience was scary and chaotic. Tolstoy gets it right in War and Peace- nobody fighting in a battle has any idea of what is happening elsewhere. This film is one of the few I have ever seen that gets that principle and actually through a visual means shows you battle as sudden and confusing. But this merely explores a central strength fo the film- this film shows you the grime and mud of the civil war period. Simple things like the effect of rain and wind on workers scything crops, the physical strength needed to chop down trees and bind them together to create houses, the wide skies over the fields of England: all these things have diminished as features of our lives since then. The film places you in a world where you are much closer to nature, much closer to the rain and wind than many of the readers of this blog live in.

Winstanley and his context are obviously important but the film also makes comments on other characters and events. Some of these it gets slightly wrong: the Putney debates were not principally about the franchise and did not end with a vote on the franchise, I do not know that the ranters (another radical group) were present in Winstanley's commune and upset it. The film could explain some things better: villagers resented the commune because they saw the common land as belonging to the local village and didn't want a group of people wondering in to dig it as part of a religious commune. Others it gets right: Sir Thomas Fairfax is presented as a radical and intelligent leader, many historians would disagree with both judgements, but based on Luke Daxon's research I would suggest both are right. There are also some great set pieces- the preacher preaching to the villagers for example on Isaiah is a wonderful piece. But ultimately the film comes down to Winstanley. Winstanley himself is too much of a plaster cast saint and that is the film's main flaw- it makes him an earnest and almost passionless man, a Christ. Perhaps also it glosses over the difficulties that there must have been in the Digger community about their life up on the hill- especially in the winter.

Despite those concerns, the film is a major acheivement. It gets the conditions of seventeenth century England right, the filming is wonderful and evokes what life was like with brilliant technique and the words of Winstanley prevent Digger ideology from being caricatured too much. If the film has faults, they are not severe: its virtues are impressive enough to mean that this is a film that should be better known and have a wider audience.

1 comments:

jams o donnell said...

Ah I didn't know there wqas a film about Winstanley. I would definitely like to see it.