Monday, April 21, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Cromwell" (1970)

Take a look at the photo that accompanies this column. You will note Richard Harris playing Oliver Cromwell in the movie that bears his surname, and Alec Guinness as King Charles I of England. Those two powerful actors are the best thing about the movie, and the way their characters are depicted are the worst.

Like most period dramas, "Cromwell" takes many liberties with the historical record. It cast two of the finest actors of their day as important figures, but fundamentally stirs up the pot of known facts until we're left with tasteless mishmash gumbo of truth and fiction.

Cromwell was a very controversial figure in British history. He was part of revolutionary movement led by Parliament that overthrew King Charles and, eventually, beheaded him. For a little more than a decade England operated as a commonwealth, and for the last few years led by Cromwell as Lord Protectorate. After Cromwell's death they tried to turn this position into an inherited one by giving it to his son, Richard, who served just a few months before the monarchy was restored and Charles II installed on the throne.

So despised was Cromwell by the Royalists that upon returning to power they dug up Cromwell's body, gave him a posthumous hanging and put his head on a spike, where it was displayed for a quarter-century. The head, still impaled by a chunk of wood, moved around among private collectors for centuries, eventually being buried in 1960. This is not the sort of behavior people display toward someone with whom they are mildly irked.
The film was written and directed by Ken Hughes, whose previous film was "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and who would later go on to make the little-remembered sequel to "Alfie" and the slasher flick "Night School." He makes the obvious but regrettable choice to position a movie about Cromwell as largely an antagonism between him and King Charles.

In actuality, Cromwell was a relatively minor figure until late in the British civil war of the 1640s, and the two men only met once during Charles' imprisonment. But the movie shows them exchanging  speeches, having public face-offs, engaging each other on the field of battle, and a bunch of other hooey. I'm not exactly sure where the image above came from, since it does not even occur in the movie -- possibly it's a production still.

Other similar "movie bullshit" invades the narrative, particularly with regard to military matters. "Cromwell" shows him playing a key role in the Battle of Edgehill, a key early defeat for the Parliament forces, but in fact Cromwell was not even present. It also depicts his decisiveness victory at Naseby as a prototypical victory of the outnumbered-but-righteous, but really the king's forces had a severe disadvantage in numbers.

Heck, they can't even get the famous moles on Cromwell's face right. The filmmakers place two large, very fake-looking (vaguely greenish) prosthetics on Harris' chin (correct) and above his left eye (wrong side). This was an easily avoidable error, since portraits of Cromwell and his death mask very clearly showed his benign growths.

Harris' lean, aquiline face doesn't exactly match Cromwell's lumpy one, though Guinness in makeup and beard is pretty spot-on for the deposed monarch. Other well-regarded actors of the day turn up in various roles -- Charles Gray, Nigel Stock, Michael Jayston, Douglas Wilmer, Geoffrey Keen -- including a very young Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert of the Rhone, Charles' rash nephew.

Hughes earns points for trying to capture the warts-and-all aspects of Cromwell, portraying him as a powerful man with very lofty ideals who was also prone to being very judgmental, particularly when it comes to Catholics. A devout Protestant, his harsh treatment of the faithful in Ireland caused his name to be cursed aplenty there even today, and undeniably helped set the path toward the conflicts the Emerald Isle would later have with London.

The movie skips over this part, however, declining even to depict any of his tenure as Lord Protectorate, ending with his dismissal of Parliament in much the same fashion King Charles did years later, setting off the very conflict that brought Cromwell to power. Instead, we get one of those standard "great man" screen roll epitaphs.

The two lead actors are to be lauded for their convincing but very disparate performances. Harris burns with smoldering anger and righteous fury, his placid exterior often giving way to fiery declarations. Guinness, contrastingly, is restrained almost to the point of immobility.

His Charles is not an evil man, just someone raised to believe he and the land are one through God-given rights. He's actually something of a weakling, prone to taking bad advice from his counselors and his Catholic wife. Guinness even lends him a barely detectable stutter, almost more of a speed bump in his speech, to underline his reticence as a leader.

The battle scenes are staged well enough, though no one ever seems to swing their sword hard enough to do any real damage. The outfits and set design are marvelous, however, enough to earn an Oscar nomination for costumes (plus another for musical score).

"Cromwell" isn't a poor film, and the lead performances are certainly engaging. But in trying to shoehorn the messy, muddy reality of life into a neat storyline, the movie sacrifices too much of its authority.


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