I visited Tolpuddle this summer, home of the famous Martyrs. It’s a pretty little village with a nice pub for lunch and there is a very good little museum that tells the story of how these early trade unionists were deported to Australia for little more than holding meetings to discuss how to protect their interests. On the one hand a summer afternoon visit is much like visiting any of the hundreds of other historical sights in and around Dorset but then you can’t help being confronted with the brutal reality of 19th Century working class life, and the importance of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the struggle to legitimise trade union activity in the UK. As a point of interest I would argue that politically the importance of the Martyrs was the effect their story had on everyone else. It is true that George Lovelace was an accomplished writer and his words do still resonate across the decades but none of the Martyrs wished to be public figures or political activists and after their return from exile they retired to obscurity, first in Essex but eventually in Canada. So it was not their campaigning or political actions that make them so important but their example as victims of oppression. In terms of the trade union movement the campaign to get them freed was what really made the difference because it was a demonstration of how unity could assert real influence on government.
Nonetheless, the story of the Maryr’s themselves is fascinating and the visit to Tolpuddle had reminded me of Bill Douglas’ 1978 feature film, Comrades, that supposedly tells the story of the Martyrs. I had not seen it when it first came out – too busy getting pissed and demonstrating – so I got a copy out of the library and took a look.
Viewing the film in 2010 was for me a remarkable experience. The film has an interesting framing device of the character of the Magic Lanterneer who is supposedly telling the story. It also uses the Brechtian device of casting the same actor in several parts (Alex Norton now of Taggart fame), a device I first came across in Lindsay Anderson’s, O Lucky Man, and one I find really intriguing. But in truth, from a 21st Century perspective, the most remarkable thing about the film is how relentlessly slow it is! For the first 30 minutes I thought I wasn’t going to make it, the long lingering shots, the lack of plot and event, the seemingly irrelevant stuff with the Lanterneer and the children; it felt like the worst kind of Eastern European art film with no narrative drive and an emphasis on image over story. But then, the remarkable thing happened, I started to get drawn in, I started to accept this self-consciously “arty” style, even be drawn in by it, and believe me that is remarkable because as a rule I really don’t like this sort of film.
For me the sequences in Australia are somehow more successful than those in Dorset, perhaps because the stylised approach seems more suited to the alien landscape and he really does create some stunning images using it. But ultimately, for me, the lack of narrative cohesion undermined my inclination to empathise with the characters and meant my engagement with the film was almost entirely conscious, almost entirely analytical rather than emotional.
If you are looking for a “call to arms” or a stirring Braveheartian (I think I’ve just invented a word!) eulogy to Trade Unionism then, Comrades, is not for you, indeed the politics of the film is not really explored in any depth, Douglas is just as interested in his explorations of film form as he is in telling the story. In this regard his work does resemble the Italian directors of political art film such as Pasolini or the early Bertolucci, rather than the English social realists such as Alan Clarke or Ken Loach.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society