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Bill Douglas's last film, one of the great films of British cinema, and
a gorgeous visual poem of surpassing beauty. Among students of the
British film industry "Comrades" is best known for its commercial flop:
given a wide theatrical release in 1987, disappointing box office led
it to be taken off within a couple of weeks before word of mouth
recommendations could do anything to build an audience - doubtless many
people were expecting a narratively straightforward, Merchant-Ivory
piece of historical costume drama. It's never been released
theatrically since, and Channel 4, who made it, have only shown it
twice since on television - I strongly doubt they've even shown it on
their dedicated film channel, FilmFour, either (it doesn't involve
people pointing guns at each other). As such, it's a great unknown, and
rare copies of the video are hard to come by, so for the immediate
future, it's hard to see how this gem is going to become better known.
The music is an oddly inspired choice: apart from the hymns and folk songs that are sung by the characters, the soundtrack music makes no attempt at pastiche of 19th-century musical forms or styles. Instead, Douglas got Hans Werner Henze, one of the leading German composers of the post-war years, to provide music (all the more powerful for being sparingly used) in his own, completely uncompromised modernist idiom (no doubt Henze agreed to do it for little money, as his well-known radical politics would have made him sympathetic to a film about the birth of trade unionism). The rich and magical soundworld Henze evokes with a small group of instruments adds immeasurably to the sense of wonder and the sheer, marvellous strangeness of many of the scenes.
What sticks in the memory most, though, are the arresting, breathtakingly beautiful visual images, frozen in time and never to be forgotten: the lanternist walking across the chalk figure of the Cerne Abbas giant on a dark hillside during the title sequence, then later seen in silhouette passing silently in front of a huge full moon; Hammett (Keith Allen giving his finest performance), too furious to speak, holding up six fingers to the viewer, turning away and then coming back to repeat the gesture to indicate how many shillings they were getting for that week's work; George Loveless (Robin Soans, criminally underused ever since) pushing a shilling coin in front of the face of Jesus in an engraving of the nativity to show Frampton how he, like the wise men in the picture now appear to be doing, worships money; James Loveless walking across a trackless Australian beach and blundering into the shot of an itinerant Italian photographer attempting a portrait of an Aborigine; the Stanfield family saying grace around the table before dividing a pitifully small loaf between too many mouths; George Loveless feeling his way through the depths of a dark Australian forest, enraptured by the beauty and seemingly free, but actually in the world's largest prison. And there are many, many more.
Every image works in its own terms as a visual composition - as striking in their vivid colours, visual rhythm, and the sometimes stylized, almost hieratic gestures of the actors as Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" or "Entombment of Christ". But the images themselves are never tediously lingered over, or presented only for their own sake: common themes run through them. The idea of one object obscuring another, or silhouetted against another (the coin over the face of Christ, the lanternist against the moon) or of an image being projected or captured (the shadow of Frampton's maid passing from room to room, projected against the curtains by the light of her own candle, the lanternist making animal shapes with the shadow of his hands against a wall, the photographer trying to capture an other-worldly image on the beach) are a strong undercurrent, suitably for a film-maker who saw his role as a painter of images. This is made apparent in the director's alter ego throughout the film, Alex Norton - superbly diverse in several different cameo roles, including the photographer, a silhouettist who cuts a paper image of the governor of the Australian penal colony as he engages in barbed political banter, and the lanternist himself (the subtitle of the film is "a lanternist's account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs"): the conceit of the whole film, as an epilogue makes clear, is that it was all a lanternist's show, presented to an audience of well-wishers who had worked for the Martyrs' release. Hints had been given: Norton's various characters had been the only ones, at various times, to stare directly at the viewer, into the camera, the director engaging conspiratorially with his viewers. The great tragedy for film-lovers everywhere, and what must have been a great sadness for Douglas, who died in 1991, is that his viewers have been so few.
UPDATE (February 2009): Film4 finally showed "Comrades" on 21 February this year, more than ten years after the channel began broadcasting. At almost the same time, the British Film Institute announced that they would be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in summer 2009. Hooray!
This is one of the greatest underrated epics of Brtish cinema.
Not only does it chart a pivotal event in the development of trade unionism but one of the few films portrays the harshness of the Australian exile system.
Everyone looked like they wanted to make this film and excel in it. The narrative slow burning but riveting, pausing to allow the audience to taste life of that period.
We see much of the wretchedness of late Victorian urban life on the screen but this early rural period is often pasteurised like a Constable painting or concentrates on the upper classes.
Bill Douglas owes more to Ken Loach than Merchant Ivory.
I believe this film was made by Channel 4 but it is never shown and or has a DVD release.
If anyone who has any experience of Channel 4 , I would be interested to know what they have against this film.
likewise..this is a truly great bit of film making. I have never seen a film before or since that gives such an interesting and atmospheric account of life in the English countryside of the 19th century. Also a film with a compassionate social message with strong characters that looks at what "ordinary" people can achieve when they work together. This is a film that should be issued on DVD and i would urge whomever is in charge of such things to find a way of doing this. It would appeal to many people from film buffs through to history students. I originally had to watch the film as part of a history course and it really brought that period of history to life for me.
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.
WHY ISN't THIS FANTASTIC FILM AVAILABLE on vid or DVD?? That is my
mainly intended for whoever holds the rights...
Btw - for those who are interested in pre-cinema stuff - Bill Douglas had a massive collection of pre-cinema artifacts (much referred to in this film) which are now housed at the Bill Douglas Center at the University of Exeter.
Bill Douglas the director might have been born to tell this story
of the Tolpuddle Martyrs; his own Scottish childhood had been something
of a martyrdom to working class deprivation and poverty.
I vaguely knew about these Tolpuddle Martyrs from school history: how 6 humble farm labourers in rural Dorset of the 1830′s had dared to form a union and ask for higher wages , and as a sorry consequence got deported to Australia.
This "poor mans epic" was a flop in the cinema and got dropped after a couple of weeks, never, or hardly ever to be seen again. I can sort of see why it didn't have general commercial appeal.
At times Douglas's way of telling the story gets in the way, slows down, or even just undercooks, dedramatises deliberately? the films propulsion, pace, purpose. I suppose i've been too used to being spoon-fed glossy costume dramas on prime-time BBC 1: narrative elements exposition, explanation, transition are all smoothly storyboarded in to give you the slick entertainment experience this film seems resolutely not to want to give you.
It could be that Douglas wasn't experienced enough as a film maker to make a grand epic drama (he'd only made his small-scale low-budget autobiographical Trilogy previously) The toil in the soil, the squelch of the mud, the hovel-like existence of downtrodden agricultural workers not many rights or entitlements, very little power, hardly any choice in the matter you do get a sense for all of that in this film. It feels like a dirty life, basic survival existence, punctuated by simple "entertainments lantern shows, travelling fairs, communal singsongs, folk dancing with life's inevitable fall ameliorated via mutuality, familiarity, warm comradeship.
There's a lot of film technique on show, which might be Douglas's self-conscious need to make it look stylistically different, uniquely his own: lots of long shots and slow shots, and focusing on still faces looking straight into the camera; abrupt and occasionally jarring transitions; using a lantern show to pick out salient features in the narrative which i found a bit irritating (too fairy-tale like i craved more of the nitty-gritty squelchy mud realism!) The last third of the film moves to Australia; we've already had 2 hours or so and another hour gets tacked on. The shift to somewhere else breaks the intensity of focus; the immersion in that localised rural reality of rainy dirty Dorset becomes too dissipated. I felt most of this Australia section could have been edited down into a 5 minute montage.
After watching this film i was curious to find out more about what happened on Google. I read several articles.
So i guess if a film has inspired me to want to know more, get further "inside" the history of these Tolpuddle Martyrs then as a historical document its succeeded. But as a Film film perhaps less so. I doubt i'd want to watch it again.
Still, i feel enlisted as one of Douglas's "comrades" now. I'm one of them. One of him.
Sorry that this is posted a little late but Film4 showed 'Comrades' at
12.20am on March 20th 2009, complete with advertisements unfortunately.
The announcer said "now for a rare screening of a British epic", too right, I estimate it hasn't been on TV for 20 years.
They do tend to show films more than once so it might be repeated in the next few weeks, probably in a graveyard slot again.
Not sure if I enjoyed it as much as the first time around but the location filming and Dorset landscapes are stunning.
Seeing as they released the Bill Douglas 'Trilogy' on DVD last year perhaps a release for this overlooked epic is in the pipeline?
I remember watching Comrades many years ago, sitting spellbound as the
story slowly unfolded. I particularly appreciated the long slow
"mug-shots" of the characters, which stayed with me for years
afterwards. The story of the Tolpuddle martyrs was new to me, although
I remember hearing the name in my history classes. What develops in the
film is the story of an early attempt at democracy and human rights,
that ends with deportation to Australia. Even there the early spirit of
trade-unionism emerges: United We Stand, Divided we Fall.
What a shame that the film seems to be currently unavailable on either VHS or DVD. Who can I write to about this?
There were such possibilities and opportunities to be grasped in the making of this film. There was a marvellous cast (I omit Keith Allen, whom I loathe and as for Barbara Windsor-she was totally out of place here) who made the best of what they could with a less than expansive script. There was some beautiful cinematography too in parts and a real feeling of the period in the costumes and sets but and I am reluctant to say this, a great deal of this movie was too slow and could have benefited from some judicious cutting. I am a lover of this kind of story and subject matter so I felt nonplussed at times as to what was going on in one or two scenes. The film was far too long and slow to really hold one's attention. I was not expecting a glossy Merchant/Ivory type production but something much more gritty and realistic which Comrades delivered to some extent but that was not enough for it to be truly absorbing. I could not get over the left wing bias that the film carried either- it was a natural result of the subject matter of course. One thing I did like was the refusal to use a lot of exposition and explanation in the script but I think it may have got in the way of filmgoers who did not know their history, understanding the whole thing. Overall rather a disappointing film, a story which could have been told so much better and more succinctly.
Working class filmmaker Bill Douglas followed his much lauded
autobiographical trilogy with this British Film Council funded poor
man's epic about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their struggle to establish
an early trade union that was a worthy winner of the BFI Sutherland
Trophy and a fitting final film for the director.
Soans puts in a strong central performance with able support from Gaminara, Bateman, Davis, Flynn and a roguish Allen, whilst Hordern, Jones, Fox, Windsor, Redgrave and an astonishing debut performance Staunton rounds out the cast and the omnipresent Norton fills in everything else.
The director retells the tale on a grand scale breathing new life into the story with atmospheric locations that perfectly capture rural Dorset and colonial Australia whilst remembering his own place as the story teller, in the form of the lanternist and his bag of tricks, and never loosing the central message of the union movement.
Remember thine end.
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