Winstanley is the title of a film made in 1975 in the UK by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, based on the 1961 David Caute novel Comrade Jacob.
Gerrard Winstanley was a protestant political mystic who fought on the winning side in the English Civil War but was disillusioned by Cromwell’s defence of elite government and set up one of the world’s first examples of a rural commune – an idea later taken up in the 20th century by the Hippies and the Israeli Kibbutz. The short lived movement inspired by Winstanley’s Surrey commune was called The Diggers, a name forgotten by history for nye on three hundred years until the post-war revaluation of the Civil War by Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill, led to the popularising of 17th century protestant fringe groups like the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters.
Winstanley’s philosophy was profoundly egalitarian, challenging the legitimacy of not only political power but also of economic wealth and especially the wholesale ownership of land by a wealthy elite. He famously described the land as a Common Treasury created by God for all men and stolen from the commons by the brute force of conquest and theft.
The film was independently made in 1975 by the two aspiring young film-makers with an almost entirely amateur cast and a budget of less than £25,000. The guerrilla film-making techniques have now become familiar, and even professionalised and commercialised into courses and festivals like Dov S. Simens 2 Day Film Course and Raindance, but in 1975 the methods were radical and perfectly in tune with the radical content.
The DVD extras, including the now ubiquitous “Making Of Documentary”, are as extraordinary as the feature itself, taking us back into a different world. Kevin Brownlow himself is a very well-spoken and precocious young man seemingly more interested in challenging the waste and profligacy of ‘70’s commercial film-making than making an overtly political film – which Winstanley nonetheless still is.
The film took 8 years to make and followed his first feature, made when he was only 18, It Happened Here, released in 1966, which in many ways is even more extraordinary than Winstanley. It Happened Here is a film that imagines life in the UK if the Germans had invaded after Dunkirk. Remarkably Mollo was only 16 when he met Brownlow during the making of It Happened Here but Mollo’s period knowledge was so extensive and he was so confident in his knowledge that he persuaded Brownlow to reshoot several sequences and as a result became his collaborator on that film and then Winstanley.
Both films are distinguished by a perfectionist attention to period detail and a lack of cynicism in both the story-telling techniques and political ideology.
We are in the same territory here as Peter Watkins, whose Battle Of Culloden and The War Game are equally powerful examples of low-budget, docu-drama with predominantly amateur casts and a political if not polemical perspective.
By modern standards both of the Brownlow & Mollo films lack narrative drive and some of the footage is technically naïve (to say the least), and both films lack consistency with some sequences and scenes being entirely convincing while others falter as amateur actors or crude technique expose the lack of experience and resources of the film-makers but this unintended gauche style contributes to a compelling veracity that makes the films probably more fascinating today as social documents than when they were originally made.
For example, the London montage in It Happened Here is entirely convincing as documentary footage; the Nazi propaganda film the heroine watches in the cinema is so good it’s almost convincing; and the funeral of the English Nazi is powerful evocative and chilling – especially when you remember it was shot by an untrained 18 year old!
Both films are held together by what critics would call the Mise-en-scène, i.e. the overall look and tone of the film created by the interaction of script performance, set and shooting style. In both cases despite moments of weakness the overall mise-en-scène here remains coherent and compelling as all the elements work together to reinforce each other – the naïve acting would not work without the documentary style, which in turn would not convince without the meticulous attention to period detail.
With our contemporary knowledge of guerrilla film-making Winstanley is the more obvious choice with its small cast of characters and limited number of locations. The use of the Sealed Knot to re-enact some battle scenes also gives the piece some relatively easily achieved production value. It’s an impressive piece of work but the leading performance is not entirely convincing and ultimately Winstanley and his followers come across as a lot like their 20th century cousins, the Hippies – i.e. self-indulgent and politically immature; an ideological dead-end.
By comparison It Happened Here is an incredibly ambitious work that is truly astonishing in the way it convincingly creates the impression of a Nazi occupied England, using hundreds of extras, numerous period military vehicles, hundreds of uniforms, a Nazi marching band and an impressive array of a posters, paper work, newspapers and magazines that pepper the scenes.
It Happened Here is astonishing as a feat of low-budget, guerrilla film-making but it is also a subtle illustration of how history gets written by the winners and how the best of us can be coaxed into inhumane acts by the powerful forces of apathy, rhetoric and social pressure. As I watched it I thought of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Blair desperately trying to create a narrative of victory as the situation in Iraq deteriorated into chaos. I’m also currently reading 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha Joon Chang and watching It Happened Here I couldn’t help thinking about how Thatcher & Reagan managed to sell us the idea that there is no alternative to their merciless form of free-market hyper-capitalism.
But for me the most telling moment in the film is when the heroine, Pauline, (compellingly played by amateur, Pauline Murray), is accused of being a Fascist and replies that she can’t be a Fascist because she knows nothing about politics. This is a pertinent reminder that none of us can avoid politics, that an ignorant populace can be sold almost anything, and that none of us can escape taking sides; to be free we need to be informed and we need to think about what we actually believe; that each of us are responsible. In law ignorance is no defence; I would argue the same is true in politics but I would add that lack of interest in politics is no defence either.
Brownlow is scheduled to receive an Academy Honorary Award at the 2nd Annual Governors Awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on November 13, 2010 for his life-times work on the history of silent film, but for me his true achievement is, It Happened Here, a powerful warning of how elites control populations.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society