Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Few names figure as prominently in the minds of the Irish than Oliver Cromwell. When English monarchs started their persecution of Catholics in the sixteenth century, striving to legitimize the Protestant Church of England, the atrocities committed against the Irish were like sporadic rehearsals compared to the full scale military campaign carried out against them by the man who led a civil war in England and eventually brought about the beheading of King Charles I. Cromwell saw the Church as an institution that worked hand-in-glove with the tyranny of kings. (Many subsequent revolutionary movements did the same.) Some historians have called his campaign in Ireland "ethnic cleansing," causing the deaths of an estimated 600,000 Irish (out of an estimated population of 1,400,000). So perhaps it made perfect sense in 1970 that Richard Harris, stridently Irish, should have played the title role in Ken Hughes' lavish - and rather effective - biopic, Cromwell, and that I should compose some remarks about it on this St. Patrick's Day.

David Lean permanently set the bar for such epics with Lawrence of Arabia, which managed to combine splendid writing (by Robert Bolt) with extraordinary imagery (by Freddie Young). Cromwell credits its script solely to Hughes, with Ronald Harwood as "script consultant." During filming, however, Richard Harris and Robert Morley contributed material to some scenes. As for the look of the film, for which the cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, production designer John Stoll and costume designer Nino Novarese are responsible, I suppose that they are enough, along with Van Dyck's famous portraits, to remind us of what an ugly period the middle seventeenth century was (the hats and moustaches were particularly objectionable).

The film seems to take place in only two places - Parliament (before it was housed in Westminster) and the battlefield. While the scenes in Parliament grow rather claustrophobic, with a hundred men continually shouting at one another, the battle scenes more than make up for them. This was one of the last films made in England that could afford a cast of thousands, and they are directed with the steady hand of a general, showing off Cromwell's battle tactics to terrific effect. For one thing, when Cromwell's infantry attacked, they ran like hell instead of marching slowly toward stationary enemy lines. Cromwell was one of those leaders who commanded from the front, combining fearlessness with an almost charmed invulnerability, encouraging his own men while unnerving enemy soldiers.

As acted by Harris, Cromwell emerges as a highly principled, if somewhat self-righteous and extremely able, man of action. What an enormous contrast Tim Roth presented as Cromwell in To Kill a King, which took a far less sympathetic view of the Lord Protector. To what extent either portrayal is historically accurate (I'm inclined to consider Roth's treacherous, aristocrat-hating Cromwell closer to the truth.) Still, I can't resist wondering how many revolutions Cromwell himself must have turned in his grave when Harris got the role.

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