"I swear by the name of the Living God that I will see this nation properly governed…if I have to do it myself."—Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell, one of the most ruthless and controversial figures of British history, rose up from the tumult of the English Civil Wars of the mid-1600s to usurp the reigning King Charles I and take control of England, Scotland, and Ireland at the head of a military dictatorship. In his brief reign as Lord Protector—the only non-royal ever to hold that position—Cromwell would transform the British Empire, for better and for worse.
Cromwell, made in 1970 by writer/director Ken Hughes, follows the rise and…continued rise of its eponymous protagonist, from his humble middle-class beginnings to his ascension to absolute power. In reshaping Cromwell from the ambiguous, complex man he was in real life to a more conventional movie hero, Hughes plays fast and loose with history, and the result is a compelling historical drama that is nonetheless unsettling in its distortions and manipulations of fact.
Facts of the Case
Merrie Olde England in the 1640s is anything but merrie, especially for its ruling class. Her autocratic ruler, King Charles I (Alec Guinness), is locked in a power struggle with Parliament, a conflict that is building inexorably towards civil war.
Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), meanwhile, is a simple farmer and member of the House of Commons who, disgusted with Charles I's despotic rule, is preparing to leave England with his family and settle in the American colonies. On the eve of his departure, however, his allies in Parliament enlist his aid in the struggle against King Charles. Patriotism and love of democracy win him over, and Cromwell takes up the cause.
When civil war finally erupts, Cromwell rises quickly through the ranks to lead the Parliamentarian ("Roundhead") army against Charles I's Royalist ("Cavalier") supporters. Despite his lack of experience, Cromwell proves a brilliant tactician and charismatic leader, and a series of unlikely military victories brings the Royalists to their knees, elevating Cromwell to the position of reluctant soldier-statesman.
As a historical epic, Cromwell follows a well-trodden path. One of the conventions of films about heroic leaders is that the hero must be humble and reluctant to take command—no power-hungry climbers allowed—and so Oliver, in one of the film's many deviations from history, is practically dragged kicking and screaming to the throne, protesting at every turn that he is a lover of democracy and that England must be ruled by the consent of the common people.
Another convention is that the forces arrayed against our hero must be arrogant, cruel, and overconfident; hence, the imperious Charles and his retinue of effete dandies not only beat and maim the downtrodden peasants, but when war comes they sneer and smirk as they array their vast, well-equipped armies against the (naturally) outnumbered, ragtag Roundheads, who win the day by virtue of their dogged determination and fighting spirit.
Seen purely in terms of drama, this by-the-book biopic is effective enough in its presentation of a dispirited nation desperate for a populist savior, and is also effective in portraying Oliver Cromwell as the messianic figure who cleans house. Richard Harris, as the brooding, charismatic Cromwell, brings intensity and passion to the role (even if he does go over the top in some of his speeches). The problem is that, in order to get Cromwell's story to fit the mold that has been made for it, Hughes has to bend, stir, shake, and spin the actual historical facts in a way that feels dishonest, especially for a film that purports to be faithful to history.
It's not just that Cromwell is historically inaccurate—all fact-based films are inaccurate to some degree; it's par for the course. What's bothersome in this case is that Hughes twists the facts in support of an agenda. While Cromwell certainly was an effective ruler in many respects, credited with laying the groundwork for Britain's vast expansion and rise to superpower status in the 18th and 19th centuries, Hughes conveniently overlooks important events, such as Cromwell's ruthless pacification of Scotland and Ireland (where the name of Cromwell is hated to this day). In fact, Ireland's bloody history of terrorism can be traced directly back to Cromwell's brutal massacres and anti-Catholic policies.
Make no mistake, the real Cromwell was impossible to fit into neat categories, and even today historians argue over his true nature and the lasting effects of his brief but influential reign. While the film presents him as a champion of the people, Cromwell was hardly a working-class hero. While to a great extent his grab for power was necessitated by a worthless Parliament and a shortage of moral men to fill their places, Cromwell ruled as a dictator, and his reign would not be confused by any modern observer with anything resembling a democracy.
The central theme of Cromwell is that, in order to wrest power from tyrants and deliver it to the people, one must accumulate power—and often the end result is that one despot is merely replaced by another, albeit one with loftier intentions. It's an interesting notion, and one fraught with dramatic possibilities. Yet by obscuring or omitting details of Cromwell's story that might darken the character and give him additional layers of complexity, Hughes not only dilutes this theme, but in presenting us with a military dictator as populist messiah, comes close to creating a fascist manifesto. When you consider that this is a film that is often shown in high school history classes, you have to wonder what message is being communicated about the events themselves and the underlying lessons.
While Columbia TriStar didn't exactly go all out with this barebones release (there are no extras aside from some trailers for All The King's Men, Bridge On The River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia, and A Man For All Seasons), there's little cause to complain about the transfer, which is exceptional for a 33-year-old film that was never a big hit or cherished classic. The digitally remastered print is mostly clean, and only slightly marred with specks and other age-related defects. The colors aren't especially vivid, but they're not really meant to be. Cromwell was shot on a small budget, and the lower production values show, although it's hard to tell during some scenes (especially the battles) that this wasn't a megabudget blockbuster. Visually, it's an attractive, creatively shot feature. The Dolby Digital Surround (English-only) audio track is also impressive; although it's not very lively during the more talky moments, the battle scenes deliver quite the active sound field, and toward the end, when Harris really starts belting it out, you'll feel the vibrations in your shoes.
One odd detail about the film: despite scenes depicting violent deaths and maimings (one peasant has his ears lopped off), Cromwell is inexplicably rated G. Just another sign that the MPAA is out of its gourd.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So Cromwell, as representation of history, leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, it's cracking good entertainment. While on the face of it this talky historical drama looks to be as dry as a history textbook—one without pictures—the presence of stars Richard Harris and Alec Guinness makes for a riveting showcase for two of the greatest actors in British cinema.
My most recent memories of Harris have been as Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies and the aged emperor in Gladiator, so it was a shock to see the younger Harris, playing Cromwell with a piercing, barely-restrained ferocity that calls to mind Russell Crowe (and makes it obvious why these two actors were cast in Gladiator as mentor and protégé).
As strong as Harris is in the film, Guinness nearly steals the show with his nuanced, complex performance as the proud, intransigent monarch whose hubris becomes his undoing. In a role that, given the fact that Charles I was a rather effete, haughty fellow with a speech impediment, could have been played to scenery-chewing excess (see Patrick McGoohan's Edward I in Braveheart), Guinness surprises at every turn, giving us a subtle portrait of an honorable and decent family man whose fatal flaws are his absolute inflexibility and unshakable faith in his own regal position.
Mind you, Cromwell is talky. And dry. And given to moments of theatrical excess, especially in some of Harris' more colorful monologues. Most of the first half hour of the film is taken up with lengthy political debates and maneuvering that may be incomprehensible and/or deadly dull to those unfamiliar with (or uninterested in) British history. While there is certainly an audience out there that finds parliamentary in-fighting in 17th century England fascinating stuff, it's not for all tastes.
Things pick up considerably when the civil war heats up and we get some rousing large-scale action scenes. And the polite struggle of wills between Cromwell and Charles becomes riveting stuff as performed by Harris and Guinness, each communicating volumes even—or especially—when nothing of import is being said.
Also, fans of Timothy Dalton will be surprised and delighted by his appearance—one of his first—in this film, as the cavalier (pun intended), foppish nephew of King Charles. It's a small role, but Dalton makes it his own, bringing much-needed humor and even pathos to the scenes on the Royalist side of the story.
Although the film ultimately stumbles with a finale that is more of a petering out than a conclusion, Cromwell captivated me much more than I expected, and left me with a distinct feeling of time not wasted.
Cromwell shall be spared the unhappy fate of King Charles I, and is herewith exonerated on all charges.
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