Friday, January 19, 2007

Now Playing: Cromwell

Tammy's out of town this weekend, and I'm here at the house with the children. Got the girls in bed by 8pm, so what's a guy to do? Have a testosterone film fest -- lots of epic Braveheart kind of stuff. When Tammy leaves town, I get to watch films like Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Tonight's feature: Cromwell.

This title has been sitting on my shelf for about 6 months since John Jensen loaned it to me as a means of sharing our passion for history, things Puritan, action flicks, and really good battle scenes. However, I must admit that the shaky reviews from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes didn't give me much hope. I just read this Pop Matters review that rakes the film over the coals as a work of historic revisionism. DVD Savant believes the history is on, but the production is terrible. Interestingly, Britmovie's biography of director Ken Hughes suggests that Cromwell was meant to be a pale foreshadowing of Castro's takeover in Cuba (remember this was in the 1970s).

Here's my short take on the qualities of the film: Coming in a little over two hours, Cromwell gives us action and court suspense. Richard Harris as Cromwell seems to thrive in shout mode for most of the film, punctuated with a few moments of humor (His pre-battle delivery of the line "Put your faith in God... and keep your powder dry." is priceless). We get the sense that he's a noble man who is sucked into weilding absolute power, in the irony of becoming the very absolutist that he deposed.

Alec Guinness, on the other hand, delivers a complex and nuanced performance as Charles I -- at times playful, affectionate with his children, imperious, wily, waffling, and in the end facing his impending execution with dignity. The execution scene is one of the longest in the film, and it had me on the edge of my seat, mainly by virtue of Guiness command of the role. He invests Charles with a slight, almost imperceptible studder -- which invests both a sense of vulnerability and distance from commoners.

Interestingly, the film lingers for a bit on the families of both these men. We see Cromwell brooding over the grave of his son, killed in the Civil War; we see Charles comforting his two youngest children before he is led out to execution. Hughes does his best to portray these men, at times beatified and at times vilified, as men.

The film also gives us some wonderful lines. When protesting the idea of Civil War, Cromwell states "Every man who wages war believes God is on his side. I'll warrant often God should wonder who is on his." and later "When men run out of words, they'll reach for swords" Charles gets this masterpiece as Cromwell advocates for democracy "Democracy, Mr. Cromwell, was a greek drollery based on the foolish notion that there are extraordinary possibilities in very ordinary people."

The film does take historic liberties with Cromwell's role in the events leading up to the Civil War -- he was in reality a minor player until his battlefield genius came to the fore. We catch a sense of the spirit of the times in the maelstrom of power politics between Parliament and Crown -- but we miss out on the religious tensions at play, save for one early scene where Cromwell protests the king's order to have candles and ornamentation in churches (an allusion to Archbishop Laud's attempt to make the churches more sacramental and less Calvinistic). Interestingly, the film portrays both men and faithful believers who put their trust in Christ, indeed it deliberately plays on the tensions of both men practicing their faith as a way of bolstering their souls for the minefields of high politics.

All told, I think this a fine film -- a few poor cuts from one scene to the next, overdone music typical of the 1970s, but a fine script, good acting, outstanding costume and set design, combine to make this a fine film. Forget about the critics, this one is worth at least one viewing.


For further edification, I recommend the Oliver Cromwell website.