Movie Monday: Cromwell (1970)

Cromwell_quad_BrianBysouth_1970-1

A quiet, cloudy afternoon, laundry to hang up and lots of tidying to do — it must be time for nearly two and a half hours of pageantry and stodge in the form of this 1970 biopic about Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England (and his warts).

Cromwell is an interesting figure — he is widely perceived as being someone who helped set England on the path toward democracy, which may be true even though he himself was a military dictator. I’ve noted that the films I review here tend to fall into a few broadly-defined categories:

  • Sensational adventures with a tenuous relation to history.
  • Gritty, mud-caked deconstructions of well-known historical tales.
  • Patriotic glurge.
  • Sumptuous historical pageants, sometimes full of patriotic glurge and sometimes empty spectacle.

I think this probably falls into the latter category, with the added bonus that there is going to be some ECKTing up in this bitch, because Cromwell is Richard Harris and Alec Guinness is Charles I. As an added bonus, Rupert of the Rhine is Timothy Dalton, although he doesn’t have a whole lot to do.

What surprised me was the comparatively limited amount of time that this film spent on the Civil War itself, or at least on battles and galloping around on horses and what have you. The only battles it depicts are Edgehill and Naseby, and it treats Naseby as if it were the end of the military phase of the war, which would have been news to the combatants. I suppose this is the usual compression that you get in in historical films; it also treats Cromwell as much more important in the early stage of the war than he was, even going so far as to make him commander of all Parliamentarian forces in the middle of the war, which would have been news to Thomas Fairfax.

Again, oversimplification, overplaying the role of the hero. Nothing too out of the ordinary there. It also ups the drama on some situations, like having Cromwell’s son (also called Oliver) killed in battle, and having Cromwell and Charles meet much more often than they did in reality so that they can ECKT at each other. That’s where the extra time not spent on battles, went, by the way: impassioned Richard Harris monologues. Approximately one hundred of them.

Alec Guinness is pretty fabulous as Charles, especially in the early part of the film where he’s still in sassy-bitch mode:

fabulous

The thing that really weirded me out throughout the film was the emphasis on democracy — en elected Parliament, Parliament answerable to the people, bigger wigs for the common he, all that sort of thing — which I don’t think was really part of Cromwell’s agenda, was it? And there are a few little shenanigans to make this seem more likely, like making it seem like Cromwell became Lord Protector as a means of resolving Parliament when in fact the Rump Parliament was several years after he took power. In keeping with the general idea of making Cromwell nicer, there’s almost no mention of Cromwell in Ireland (although whether Cromwell was any worse than the common run of 17th-century generals, who tended heavily in the direction of bloodthirsty, is another question).

And I think this goes to the ambivalence of the film’s — and perhaps the nation’s? — attitude toward Cromwell. Interestingly, Charles comes off as a much more sympathetic figure as a result; he isn’t full of the kind of tortured contradictions that you get in Cromwell. Guinness plays him as an intelligent, humane person who is just in the grip of forces far beyond his control and doesn’t realise it until it’s much too late.

Anyway, as a history lesson Cromwell is pretty flawed. As a film, it has maybe five or six too many impassioned monologues to really hold the attention all the way, but it does have some great performances, pageantry, spectacle, all that kind of thing. As the kind of thing you can get for a fiver, I think it’s not bad. Certainly images moved in front of me and I was entertained. But not informed, particularly. 

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Movie Monday: Cromwell (1970)

6 thoughts on “Movie Monday: Cromwell (1970)

  1. I kinda like it, though a lot of that has to do with it being one of the few films which is set during the ECW I can think of. Alec Guinness is, as you say, fabulous and whilst the attention to historical detail is essentially lacking in anything other than broad brushstrokes (again, as you noted some of the principal actors during the actual civil war might have had some questions to ask) but overall it’s pretty good IMO.

  2. I do love a spot of eckting on a wet afternoon – hope you got the laundry done before this shower. I am a PhD history student – if you would care to say ‘hello’ to me next time I am in the West Room drop me a message and we’ll talk history over tea and cake some time.

  3. Edwin King says:

    One thing to notice is that as the film wears on Charles’ costumes become more simple and Cromwell’s more regal…

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