To begin the new year with something old: Milestone Film and Video has just re-released two films of antiquarian interest, directed (appropriately enough) by British film historian Kevin Brownlow in collaboration with Andrew Mollo.
You may know of Brownlow as the author of a standard work on the art of early cinema, The Parade’s Gone By… If you’ve read his more recent book, Behind the Mask of Innocence, you will also know he’s interested in early social and political films, having recovered a good many of them from the oblivion that descends when people tag a bygone time as “simpler.” Brownlow’s twin passions–for reviving the past and recomplicating our relationship with it–animate the two features he made with Mollo and are reason enough to visit them, at New York’s Film Forum (during their current theatrical run) or wherever they’re shown.
It Happened Here reconstructs forties England with absolute physical accuracy, the better to dramatize what daily life might have been during a Nazi occupation. Conceived by Brownlow in 1956, when he was all of 18, the film required eight years of highly independent production, using nonprofessional actors, borrowed military uniforms and equipment (including Mollo’s extensive private collection), scrounged film stock (some of it donated by Tony Richardson and Stanley Kubrick) and a budget of $21,000. Then came the challenge of distributing the picture. In one of those rare yet perennial breakthroughs that characterize do-it-yourself filmmaking–an enterprise that is always starting to blossom and has always just withered away–Brownlow and Mollo signed a contract with United Artists.
The release was gratifying, unremunerative and incomplete. It Happened Here won considerable attention for its authors during a limited run. On the other hand: In their zeal for authenticity–and also, perhaps, to show how the past remains a living reality–Brownlow and Mollo had included genuine sixties fascists (including English Nazi Colin Jordan) among the film’s imaginary forties blackshirts. The result, I think, was a useful blurring of documentary and fiction, like the filmmakers’ use of rubble-strewn London locations, which were still in ruins twenty years after the Blitz. But various groups complained about the sequence that involved Jordan, not trusting the audience to see through his idiocies. Such pre-emptive protests were a feature of public life in the sixties, as much as now; and the outcome, as now, was not always happy. United Artists cut six minutes from It Happened Here–the most compelling six minutes in the picture–which only now have been restored with the Milestone re-release.
Here’s how we get to those minutes: It’s 1944, and Pauline (Pauline Murray), a nurse and war widow, has been “evacuated” by German forces from the partisan-contested area of Salisbury and sent to London, which flourishes under the sort of home rule that Paris also enjoys. At least, Pauline is willing to see it as home rule. As a sensible person, she believes the task at hand is to “get back to normal”; and so, though she declares herself to be nonpolitical, she joins England’s Nazi party (an organization called Immediate Action), through which she can find work and a new pair of shoes.
To me, this understated, sympathetic portrayal of fascism-by-default is more startling than the “actualities footage” of German soldiers sightseeing in London or the concocted, collaborationist newsreel that’s inserted as a film within the film. Clever, hard-working cinephiles can be counted on to render such physical details. But sociological realism is harder to come by, especially from filmmakers as young as were Brownlow and Mollo. That’s why I’m impressed most of all by the nuanced, believable portrayal of Pauline–including the mixture of unease and acquiescence with which she receives a lesson on racial science from Colin Jordan.
There was the paradox. Although the war had been over for only a few years, Brownlow and Mollo were dealing with a period that was already historical and for which they had to reassemble the material reality. They were praised for doing so. Yet at the same time they were blamed for presenting the ideological reality, which required no reconstruction but was available for the shooting. Their next and last collaboration would bring this paradox to fresh heights of aggravation.
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.