Biography / Drama / War

IMDb Rating 7.1 10 335

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Movie Reviews

Reviewed by MartinHafer 6 / 10

About as independent as any film can get!

I rented this DVD for one reason--it was directed by Kevin Brownlow. I love what Brownlow has done--making some brilliant films chronicling the early giants in silent cinema. His films on Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith are simply brilliant--because of their VERY extensive research, watchability and analysis of their craft. He also was responsible for the great mini-series "Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood"--a documentary that was about silents and early talking films. For this body of work, Brownlow received an honorary Oscar in 2011--and I was excited to see him recognized.

In the case of "Winstanley", however, Brownlow directed a film that has nothing whatsoever to do with silent movies. It was a very independently produced tiny film. Because of the very limited budget and resources, the film took eight years to complete, used all non-professional actors and was filmed semi-documentary style in black & white! It certainly is NOT the sort of film that the average person would ever watch, that's for sure!

The story is about a man named Gerrard Winstanley who lived during the 17th century in England. The film begins at the end of the English Civil War. Following this war, Winstanley published pamphlets that called for a Christian form of Communism--based on the way the early church lived in the book of Acts. It's all very idealistic, egalitarian and peaceful--so therefore those not in his group of followers hated them and saw them as a threat to civil order! So, they beat the crap out of the group, scattered them off public lands on which they were squatting and farming crops--and the idea eventually died. This is rather ironic, considering that technically speaking, Winstanley and his followers were being VERY good Christians--following the exact model created by the Apostles! It's also not very surprising that the film would be made, as communes and the like were very much in vogue when the project began in 1968.

This film is obviously a very sincere and amazing effort when you think about how it was made. Is it, then, any good? Well, yes and no. I loved how according to an article I read, Brownlow was VERY careful to only include animals in the film that actually existed during the mid-1600s. Newer hybrids and foreign animals found now in the UK were not used! Additionally, the outfits everyone wears are scruffy and many are shoeless--much like peasants would have been dressed at the time. So, historically speaking, I was VERY impressed with the attention to detail. However, I must admit that the film, at times, seemed a bit pathetic. I doubt if the Diggers (as Winstanley's group was nicknamed) consisted of so few people. I think this was done simply because the film had a shoestring budget. It's REALLY obvious, however, when they showed a truly pathetic 'battle' at the beginning of the film. This was supposed to be from the Civil War, but consisted of jerky camera angles, jiggling camera and weird editing to make you think there was a battle....but I honestly think there were only about 8-12 people in this HUGE battle of epic proportions!! It almost reminded me of a skit from "Monty Python"--but in this case it wasn't supposed to be funny. Because of such obvious problems due to a non-existent budget, it would REALLY be great if a big-budgeted version of Winstanley's life and legacy could be made....but I won't hold my breath waiting! Overall, the film is a noble effort but without any sort of momentum. The film consists of repeated efforts of the locals to get rid of the commune but it's all done without much energy or drama. This 'mini climax' actually happened repeatedly and kept the film from having a lot of impact, as I found myself getting a bit bored by the film's style and pace. Interesting and noble, perhaps, but not particularly enjoyable.

By the way, the DVD for this film included a special feature made in 1976 called "It Happened Here Again" and it's a making of film about "Winstanley". It was pretty interesting and tells how the film used great economy to make a 140 minute-long movie that cost about as much, according to this short film, as the opening credits of a James Bond film!! Well worth seeing. By the way, the title of the short was a takeoff on the title of Brownlow's first film "It Happened Here"--though it had absolutely nothing to do with "Winstanley".

Reviewed by mwilson1976 7 / 10

An authentic historical drama about the visionary Gerrard Winstanley who led a group of impoverished 'Diggers' to assert their common rights.

During the 17th century, Gerrard Winstanley, a bankrupt English merchant and social reformer, organizes one of the first communes to be established in the Western world along with a small band of followers known as the Diggers. Filmed in black and white, and using a cast made up mainly of amateurs, including real life activist Sid Rawle who plays a Ranter (English Revolution period anarchist-type group). it is based on the 1961 David Caute novel Comrade Jacob, and the armour used was actual armour from the 1640s, borrowed from the Tower of London. An influential film that has inspired modern day films such as A Field in England.

Reviewed by rooee 9 / 10

Olde England, Timeless Ideas

Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's minor classic – a sort of pastoral Spartacus that develops into a chilly Mosquito Coast – regards the 17th century reformist-activist leader Gerrard Winstanley, and it really puts the period in period drama. Made for tuppence, it memorably recreates a time and place too often the reserve of buttoned-up aristocrats. Here it is the domain of the common digger, eking the living on God's land. Problem is, General Lord Fairfax reckons the land belongs to him.

You just have to zip over to IMDb and click on each cast member to get a taste of what an achievement this film is. Other than Jerome Willis (Fairfax himself), you're hard-pushed to find another professional actor among the cast. So yes, some of the performances are amateurish by default. But others are remarkable: aside from Miles Halliwell's titular visionary (whose brow is the very definition of furrowed), David Bramley's Parson Platt in particular stands out as a model of eerie poise and stern implacability.

But it's the photography that really brings the film to life. In sharp monochrome, all the colour of rural England seems to breathe. The faces of the ex-soldiers, scarred like land masses, look like they're filmed in 3D. And then there is the constant mood of inventiveness, with the editor (Sarah Ellis, hacking the frame with Schoonmaker-esquire skill and savagery) unafraid to lurch from extreme close-up to echoing long shot, and the directors even shifting focus to a first-person perspective during one of the many attacks on the diggers' settlement.

With its timeless themes of the stricken many versus "the covetous few", Winstanley is as relevant now as ever (not least when one offscreen character compares Winstanley's celebrity prophet to a certain Muhammad). Its unique atmosphere, striking visuals and strong plotting elevate it to essential viewing.

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