The story of "The Tolpuddle Martyrs". A group of 19th century English farm labourers who formed one of the first trade unions and started a campaign to receive fair wages.

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The story of "The Tolpuddle Martyrs". A group of 19th century English farm labourers who formed one of the first trade unions and started a campaign to receive fair wages. Written by Steve Crook <steve@brainstorm.co.uk>

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23 August 1987 (UK)  »

Also Known As:

Comrades - uomini liberi  »

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Masterful but not a masterpiece
2 May 2011 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

In 1843, six English agricultural labourers – George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett - were sentenced to transportation to Australia because they had formed a trade union (which was legal) and administered oaths (which was not). This is the compelling story told in "Comrades".

It took writer and director Bill Douglas eight years to make the film and it was finally released in 1987 when Margaret Thatcher was doing her best to neuter the British trade union movement. It was poorly received at the box office and quickly withdrawn from cinemas; it was rarely shown on television and spoiled by advertisements; only in 2009 – to mark the 175th anniversary of the Tolpuddle martyrs - did the British Film Institute reissue the film as a DVD which is how I came to see it.

As someone who spent 24 years as a professional trade union official, I approached the film with enthusiasm but I cannot let my political values diminish my critical faculties as a reviewer. Elements of this film are masterly but it is deeply flawed.

Let's start with the positives. This seminal event in the history of the British labour movement deserved the big screen treatment. It was shot entirely on location in Dorset and Australia. The cinematography – by Gale Tattersall – is wonderful. It is a marvellous evocation of the times with great attention to clothes and buildings and the 'new' technology of the laternists. There are mesmerising close-ups of characterful faces. The acting is impressive with the working class portrayed by relatively unknown actors and some well-known stars – such as James Fox and Vanessa Redgrave – taking on the role of the rich.

But there are such serious weaknesses. It is far too slow. It is far too long – just over three hours. The dialogue is excessively sparse – so too little information is provided and frequently it is unclear what is happening. We do not see the trial of the labourers or anything of the campaign to have them released. It is uneven with more action and dialogue in the Australian scenes and an incident with an Italian photographer that is totally out of place both in subject and tone.

And the characters are far too one-dimensional: the labourers and their families are presented as mythic in their nobleness while the landowners and their allies are shown as unremittingly callous and evil (there is a scene with a dog that has no justification whatsoever). The little speech at the end – reminiscent of the conclusion of "The Grapes Of Wrath" - is unnecessarily polemical.

When all is said and done, "Comrades" should be seen and admired, but this is not the masterpiece that some would pretend.


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