Disgusted with the policies of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell plans to take his family to the New World. But on the eve of their departure, Cromwell is drawn into the tangled web of religion and politics that will result in the English Civil War.Written by
Marg Baskin <email@example.com>
Richard Harris said he had a nervous breakdown during filming, and actually woke up one day thinking they were going to execute King Charles I. See more »
Sir Thomas Fairfax is one of the Commissioners in the King's trial, and refuses to sign the death warrant. In fact he was not present at the trial (for reasons which are unclear - probably either because he disagreed with the trial, or simply because his military duties detained him) and was therefore not eligible to sign the warrant in the first place. See more »
For some reason the English cinema seems to prefer the sixteenth century to the seventeenth. There have been numerous films about the Tudor dynasty, most recently "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and "The Other Boleyn Girl", but fewer about their Stuart successors, apart from Restoration romps and bodice-rippers like "Forever Amber" or "Stage Beauty", which generally feature a walk-on part for Charles II.
"Cromwell" is one of the few exceptions. As the title suggests, it is based on the life of Oliver Cromwell and concentrates on the 1640s, the decade during which Cromwell rose from a modest Huntingdonshire country squire to commander of the Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War and played a leading role in the deposition and execution of King Charles I. It has less to say about Cromwell's rule as Lord Protector of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1650s.
The film has been criticised for its historical inaccuracies. This sort of thing can normally be put down to a lack of adequate research, and the film does indeed contain a few mistakes of this type. (Cromwell's son Oliver junior was not killed at the Battle of Naseby but died of natural causes, and the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Manchester are shown as sitting in the House of Commons rather than the House of Lords). In most cases, however, inaccuracies which might appear to be careless errors are really deliberate distortions made to fit in with the film's underlying agenda which is to whitewash Cromwell's character and to present him as a hero of democracy.
In the period leading up to the Civil War, Cromwell's prominence in the opposition to Charles I is exaggerated. In a meeting which never took place, he is shown as telling the King that England should be a democracy and he is incorrectly numbered among the five members of Parliament whom Charles attempts to arrest.
During the war itself the film depicts Cromwell as single-handedly transforming the Parliamentary Army, after a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Edgehill, from a disorganised rabble into an effective fighting force and as a military genius whose tactics are responsible for the defeat of a numerically superior Royalist force at the Battle of Naseby. In fact, Edgehill was an indecisive battle rather than an outright Royalist victory- if Charles had won as decisively as he is shown doing here the war would probably have been over very quickly- and at Naseby it was the defeated Royalists, not the victorious Roundheads, who were outnumbered. The film omits the Battle of Marston Moor, arguably a more decisive turning-point than Naseby, possibly because Cromwell was not in overall command of the Parliamentary armies on that occasions. (The commanders in that battle were Sir Thomas Fairfax and Manchester, neither of whom are shown in a good light in the film). To emphasise Cromwell's piety, the famous prayer of the Royalist Sir Jacob Astley at Edgehill is put into his mouth.
The main reason why the film does not concentrate too much on Cromwell's record after 1649 is that that record will not bear too much scrutiny if one regards him as a hero. Although one view of history has traditionally seen the Roundheads as fighting for parliamentary democracy, Cromwell made himself dictator of Britain by force of arms, succeeded where Charles had failed in ruling without Parliament and had himself proclaimed Lord Protector, monarch in all but name. Had his son Richard, who briefly and ineffectually succeeded him, been a man of the same ruthless stamp, Britain might today be a Hereditary Protectorate under the House of Cromwell. The greatest stain on Cromwell's memory, the brutal subjugation of Ireland which cost several hundreds of thousands of lives, is totally ignored. (The film gives the impression that he spent the years in question, 1649-53, living peacefully on his farm in Huntingdon).
As a costume drama the film is not a bad one and succeeds in bringing seventeenth-century England to life. Richard Harris is not particularly good in the title role, especially as he is not always successful in concealing his Irish accent. (Given Cromwell's antipathy to, and persecution of, the Irish, it seemed ironic to have him played by an Irishman). There is, however, an excellent performance from Alec Guinness as Charles I, who is treated more objectively than are his political opponents. There is no attempt to blacken Charles' character, although there are a couple of inaccuracies. Charles did not treat his nephew Prince Rupert as shabbily as he is shown doing here, and his trusted adviser Sir Edward Hyde did not testify against him at his trial. (Had Hyde done so, he would doubtless have been executed at the Restoration instead of becoming Charles II's chief minister). Guinness plays Charles as a man who, beneath his outward dignity and firm belief in the Divine Right of Kings, is nervous, hesitant and self-doubting, something indicated by a stammer. One senses from Guinness' portrayal that although Charles was a bad king he may not have been a bad man.
Some have seen a film which praises a republican rebel as revolutionary, but in fact hagiography of Cromwell is far from something new. The film's politics fall broadly within the Whig tradition, which saw English history in terms of a steady progression towards the triumph of liberty and Protestantism- two concepts which for the Whigs were practically indistinguishable- and the Civil War as a vital step in this process. The film also shows the influence of Thomas Carlyle, who regarded Cromwell as one of the heroes of history and eulogised him in his "Heroes and Hero-Worship". By 1970, however, this approach to history was starting to look outdated and Carlyle's idea of hero-worship hopelessly naive. If the charismatic dictators of the twentieth century have taught us anything, it is to beware of the strong man on the white horse. 7/10
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