Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cromwell (1970)

          While I must confess that historical stories about the British monarchy generally leave me cold, because I find it nearly impossible to track all the Byzantine relationships and rules, I dove into Cromwell with high hopes simply because of my affection for the actor Richard Harris, whom I find compelling in nearly any context. Alas, the cumbersome weight of the storyline makes Cromwell a tough sit. Ironically, it seems the filmmakers’ unsuccessful attempt to streamline the narrative had the deleterious additional repercussion of introducing a number of historical errors, so the film is neither entertaining nor purely factual. Worse, Harris simply isn’t very good here, opting for a numbing performance style that shifts back and forth between moping and screaming. In nearly every scene, he’s either too loud or too sullen. One is tempted to put the blame on director Ken Hughes for failing to calibrate Harris’ performance, since Hughes’ filmography is filled with mediocre movies, but whatever the reason, Harris fumbles an opportunity that his more disciplined contemporaries—Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and such—probably would have seized.
          Anyway, the subject matter is unquestionably worthwhile, because Cromwell tells the story of a brave aristocrat who, in the 17th century, toppled King Charles I from the English throne and thus ended a period of elitist monarchy. The picture presents Cromwell (Harris) as a reluctant hero who sets aside his desire to leave England (for a new life in the North American colonies), and concurrently presents Charles I (Alec Guinness) as an out-of-touch ruler who believes himself innately superior to his subjects. These are fascinating textures when placed in contrast with each other, and the best parts of the picture—aside from a few lively battle scenes—feature the main characters espousing their ideals. This being a historical drama, each main character is the head of a faction representing various interests, so there’s a lot of material related to the compromises Cromwell and Charles I make to keep their fragile alliances together. This is where the picture lost me, since I became exhausted trying to remember which character wanted which outcome for which combination of personal, political, and religious reasons.
          Had Harris’ leading performance been as commanding as I expected—or had Guinness hit a broader range of notes than he does—it’s possible I would have found Cromwell more compelling, but, as I mentioned earlier, the material faced an uphill battle in terms of winning me over. I explain my reactions in detail not to fixate on my own experience, since I’m merely one viewer, but to explain that devotees of historical stories will undoubtedly regard Cromwell through very different eyes.

Cromwell: FUNKY


The Mutt said...

The films greatest failure is that it ignores the slaughter, starvation and slavery Cromwell visited on the Irish. The Irish hatred of Cromwell persists to this day. When my grandmother, who was born in Ireland in 1898, saw the ad fro the Cromwell film in the newspaper, she spit on it.

Groggy Dundee said...

I don't know, I'm a devotee of historical pageant films (A Man for All Seasons is one of my all-time favorites) and I found Cromwell dull, too. I like Guinness's performance but Harris was wretched, the plot plodding and the script was pitched at the most boring, declarative level imaginative. I particularly winced at the scene where Cromwell outlines his plans for a free society to the King, concluding with "It's called a democracy, Your Highness."

John said...

If I recall correctly the film, while impressive in parts, rather skims over the reasons why our hero Cromwell and parliament lost any public affection they might have had to start with. Well, behaving like the Taliban might have had something to do with it.

It is easy to forget - or not know if you only ever hear from Cromwell fans - that he banned and brutally repressed numerous activities such as the theatre and other forms of entertainment, pubs, sport, music, hot food on a Sunday, public kissing and, just to infuriate any but the most puritan Christian, Christmas.

Few, if any, of these activities would have been banned if there was truly democracy at the time . After a few years of this sort of treatment it is no surprise that the Cavaliers and their monarchy started to look not so bad after all.

Alan Brooks said...

I like 'Cromwell', even though all the critics are right. I like it because maybe the real Cromwell was a pompous, angry man-- as Harris performs the role. And maybe the king was a clueless fool, as Alex Guinness plays him.

Alan Brooks said...

...Want to go into a tad more detail. What 'Cromwell' does offer is Timothy Dalton and Dorothy Tutin. They act as real people-- not stiff actors like most of the rest of them. Dalton portrays the fun-loving Rupert the Cavalier continental prince. Tutin portrays the Queen with more warmth than the men do their roles. Alec Guinness also does fairly well, despite a script that makes him seem a walking corpse, with almost campy lines such as "Rather than abandon my kingdom to Parliament, I would make a pact with the Devil himself." There's just enough to make the film worth watching.