Parades Gone By
In the late sixties, one of the nonprofessionals who had appeared in It Happened Here--a teacher named Miles Halliwell--brought the filmmakers a copy of David Caute's novel Comrade Jacob. He thought they might be attracted to this tale of the revolutionary Diggers of the mid-1600s. Again, the present-day dimension of the story wasn't hard to locate. Hippie communards calling themselves Diggers had recently sprung up in England and the United States; one of their number, a fellow named Sid Rawle, could be transposed into the seventeenth century with hardly an alteration of his outfit, and with no haircut required. Financing materialized through the British Film Institute's Production Board--one of those institutions that are forever putting independent filmmakers on a firm footing, and are forever backsliding with them--and another multiyear project ensued.
It was titled Winstanley after the founder of the Diggers, Gerard Winstanley: former soldier, former cloth merchant, occasional cattle-grazer-for-hire and author of the pamphlet The New Law of Righteousness. In 1649, acting upon ideas suggested to him by the Gospels, the egalitarian organization of Cromwell's army and the promptings of his inner light, Winstanley settled with a few others on the common ground of St. George's Hill in Surrey. In so doing, he stretched the meaning of "common" past what the law would allow. Such lands were public only in the sense of being open to the herds of all local property owners. They were not free to the public for dwelling, cultivation or woodcutting, especially as practiced by paupers who'd arrived from God knew where. Yet Winstanley insisted that "the earth is a common treasury for all" and firmly yet peacefully refused to move on. As Christopher Hill has written of the movement Winstanley briefly sparked, "Neither Russia nor Germany nor France but England gave the world its first communist political programme."
For all that, Brownlow and Mollo knew they were dramatizing a small-scale, local phenomenon: a clash that took place over the course of one year, on a single hill, between a handful of communards on the one hand and a few dozen villagers and soldiers on the other. So their Winstanley is obsessively accurate in more than its sets, costumes and props. ("Even the animals came from rare breeds," Brownlow recalls, "and the armor for the battle scene came from the Tower of London.") It also practiced a modesty in its storytelling. If It Happened Here drew much of its visual style from newsreels, then Winstanley recalled the quiet, steady, light-filled compositions of Carl Dreyer's great period dramas.
More than that: Without making any theoretical fuss about it, Winstanley took its place among the rigorously modernist films of the seventies. Inspired in large measure by Roberto Rossellini's historical films, these pictures maintained what psychiatrists would call a flat affect, stressing no moment over any other, whether a character was eating a meal at home or being ambushed on the road. All events were treated alike because all were visual texts, offered in place of a reality that could not be directly apprehended. And so, in Winstanley, scene after scene comes across as "documentary" in the sense of being a realization of documents: the written words that provide our main access to the character and his world.
And yet: Here was Sid Rawle, providing an immediate present-day link to the past. (He played a Ranter, not a Digger. The title role went to Miles Halliwell, by virtue of his having scratched up the subject. You'll find he looks like Gary Sinise after three years of sleeplessness.) Here, too, were shadows of the events of 1968 through 1975, when the film was in production: a period with its own revolutionary fervor and squabbling and failure, all of which hover over this story of an earlier epoch. Now you see it, now you don't: Like a magic act, Winstanley calls up lifelike illusions and whisks them away.
It's strange to watch the picture today, when we seem so removed from the uprisings of 1968--even farther in spirit than Brownlow and Mollo were distant from 1944 when they made It Happened Here. We watch Winstanley across a double distance. All the more reason to watch--because those distances, too, are illusions.