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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: Scotland julian_craster's Avatar
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    Winstanley (UK, 1975)

    Cert (UK): 15

    Runtime: 95 mins

    Directors: Andrew Mollo, Kevin Brownlow

    Cast: David Bramley, Jerome Willis, Miles Halliwell

    Looking back in regret at Winstanley

    Winstanley is a remarkable film for many reasons, but in adapting my book the film-makers left out the difficult religious motivations of the time

    by David Caute

    Friday October 17 2008

    David Caute: Looking back in regret at Winstanley | Film |

    Today St George's Hill in Surrey boasts some fine stockbroker-belt residences and an exclusive golf course to accommodate idle hours. Here opulent private properties sit untouchable behind security gates and surveillance cameras. It was not always so. In 1649, as the civil war drew to a close and Charles I stepped out on to a Whitehall balcony to face the executioner, the landowners of St George's Hill were confronted by an influx of nightmare neighbours, the so-called Diggers.

    These Diggers brashly laid claim to the common land, arguing that if the title meant anything it meant communal agriculture, the tilling of the soil and the cultivation of crops by the people. Local gentry, vigorously abetted by the incumbent Presbyterian parson, called on General Fairfax's army to intervene in defence of their traditional grazing rights. The Diggers were intruders, trespassers, ploughing the commons and cutting down vast quantities of wood to erect their dwellings, to cook, and to fend off the cold. Their eloquent leader, Gerrard Winstanley, advanced their claims in the name of natural justice � an end to the hideous "Norman yoke", history's theft by force of the people's birthright � but also in the name of God.

    A band of discharged soldiers from the New Model Army, the hardcore Diggers of St George's Hill were arraigned before Kingston Court and fined beyond their means. Their huts were periodically levelled by local bailiffs, tradesmen and villagers jealous of their acres. In the end the Surrey Diggers were put down, scattered from their makeshift huts by winter weather and force of arms. Yet what these desperate upstarts achieved during 12 fraught months of sowing and praying has so inspired later generations that San Francisco radicals of the 1960s adopted the name. We possess a record of their songs, which uncannily anticipate Orwell's Beasts of England from Animal Farm: "Though we have been sad/ Yet now we are glad/ To see such a joyful time/ Our Miseries they,/ Are passing away/ And truth begins to climb ..."

    Our main window into the souls of the Diggers is the collected writings of the Lancashire-born tradesman's son, Winstanley, who had recently lost his business in London and earned his keep by grazing cattle near Walton. The Diggers were certainly communists, in some respects anarchists, and modern scholars continue to argue how much "Marxism" is to be found in Winstanley's credo, alongside the dominant religiosity of the Puritan revolution which temporarily turned Cromwell's England into a theocratic republic. Clearly Winstanley himself experienced semi-mystical trances, dreaming of the divine spark releasing the purging, cleansing fire from the bush. "The whole of creation of fire, earth, air and water and all types of body created from them, this is the clothing of God, but in the days since Adam's fall, since Esau's triumph over the younger brother Jacob, the masters have taken a profit from the workers of the world, setting up parliaments to legalize their privileges, employing corrupt priests and parsons to sanctify the order of society." But in Isaiah it is written, "The lion and the lamb shall feed together."

    I became acquainted with the Diggers in Oxford University tutorials with the great historian of our 17th-century upheavals, Christopher Hill, who at that juncture was severing his links with the Communist party in the wake of the Hungarian revolution. Out of this came a novel, Comrade Jacob, published in the spring of 1961. But how to climb into the heads of Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Ranters and the other mushrooming sects? We find it easier, surely, to understand the strictly secular doctrines of Jacobins and Bolsheviks. I divided the storytelling between Winstanley's own self-righteous narrative and scenes in which his actions and personality are viewed through a more sceptical authorial lens. Much of it was mere conjecture - the evidence is hazy. But this haze, which became the oxygen of the novel, was later lost in the film version.

    Some of my left-wing contemporaries embarking on careers in TV, the theatre and film took an immediate interest in Comrade Jacob. As it turned out they were little interested in the religious dimension of the story. If memory serves, an early TV adaptation, screened by the BBC drama department, somewhat resembled a civil war jousting society of Roundheads and Cavaliers firing muskets and clashing steel in Duke's Meadows. A few years after that my friend, the greatly gifted John McGrath, adapted the novel for the stage, as the opening production of the Gardner Arts Centre at the University of Sussex.

    The recurrent problem in these adaptations during the 1960s and 70s was the erosion of two central themes of the novel by the partisan passions of the New Left. Winstanley's mystical religious fervour went out of the window � he was always found on his feet rather than his knees. Also defenestrated was the rising personal power this opinionated prophet exercised among his poor followers, and how his "moral parsonage" may have entered his soul. In the stage and screen adaptations he was to be found striding out of a socialist realist manual, a clear-headed tribune of the people, a steadfast hero unburdened by the shadow of Esau. The lessons of Orwell's Animal Farm did not surface.

    By the time I was approached by two gifted young film-makers in the early 1970s, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, I was cautious enough to make it a condition of assigning the rights that I should write the film script myself. I didn't know that Kevin and Andrew had been beavering for some years to raise money for the project, and that various scripts (to be found in the BFI archive) had already been presented to potential producers. The BFI production board funded the enterprise, shooting went ahead near Hindhead, and I duly discovered that screenwriters do not count for much. Not until I was shown the final product did I realise what had been going on. I duly withdrew my screenwriting credit.

    Winstanley is certainly a remarkable achievement which has earned itself film society and television screenings around the world for more than thirty years. It was shot on a shoestring budget (the BFI contributed �17,000), the brilliant cameraman Ernest Vincze and all but one of the actors giving their services out of love. The film comes across as unflinchingly authentic in naturalistic terms, not unlike Brownlow's earlier fictional documentary about a Nazi occupation of Britain, It Happened Here. Brownlow and Mollo captured the surface detail of civil-war England � ploughs, weapons, uniforms - with the same devotion to detail, and the black-and-white camerawork is spellbinding.

    But here lies the problem: Winstanley is a vivid commentary on the physical condition of 17th century rural England, but it is reluctant to penetrate the intense religious motivations of the time. Winstanley believed that to know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God within the creation. This extends to the characters. I make no great claims for my novel in this regard but it did attempt to convey individuals' sometimes perverse changes of mood and motivation. This is certainly retained in the person of the army commander, Lord General Fairfax, but Winstanley, the eponymous hero of the film, remains from start to finish a decent, upstanding, strangely well-spoken Left Book Club idealist. The rough edges of a Lancastrian, the religious torment, the mood swings between pride and humility, Winstanley's mounting confusions about God and Reason, have utterly gone.

    The film does introduce one major coup nowhere to be found in the novel. By the early 1970s London was in the grip of a squatter crisis. They were occupying vacant premises (and not always so very vacant) across London, resorting to illicit stratagems to extract free electricity. Among the movement's more flamboyant leaders was the high-voiced Sid Rawls, who in the film is parachuted into the Digger camp with several fellow-Ranters: idle hippies shocking the worthy colonists by prancing naked and uttering a stream of blasphemies. This theatrical happening never took place but the episode works well dramatically, evoking the modern thrust of freewheeling druggies and exciting an enthusiastic response from London's squatters.

    Winstanley remains a remarkable film about the desperate claims of impoverished, landless English people � a heritage now buried beneath St George's Hill golf club. I remember Kevin showing me clips from the austere eye of Carl Dreyer, a fertile influence, and one also finds beguiling versions of Bergman's silhouetted figures trudging in pursuit of destiny across distant horizons. Wonderfully done, but now, as 30 years ago, my admiration remains somewhat rusted by regret. When the committed artist speaks to the present through the past, he must always stay in touch with what is awkward and strange, with what remains elusive in terms of the modern.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Country: England
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    Jan 2005
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    Winstanley is one of my favourite films, I have a copy on VHS taped from a Film 4 broadcast several years ago. I'd love to get a copy on DVD but it only appears to be available on Region 1.

    It's a beautifully made film, the photography is stunning and more than makes up for the sometimes, amateurish acting. I did think Winstanley was perhaps not as middle class as he was portrayed in the film, not sure he would have had that kind of accent! Still, an outstanding film which deserves a wider audience.

  3. #3
    Senior Member Country: England
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    Apr 2003
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    Winstanley is being screened as part of the 2008 Leeds International Film Festival, at 2.00pm on Saturday, 8 November at the Hyde Park Cinema.

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