This week’s pick is the 1970 British epic Cromwell which stars veteran actor Richard Harris as the man who led Parliamentary forces to victory during The English Civil War. The film also stars Sir Alec Guinness (King Charles I), Robert Morley (The Earl of Manchester), Timothy Dalton (Prince Rupert), Patrick Wymark (The Earl of Stafford), and Michael Jayston (Henry Ireton).
After years of unjust and unacceptable policies during the mid 1600’s, many members of the dissolved Parliament feel that King Charles I has forsaken his subjects and that England is in need for drastic political change. Oliver Cromwell is a good, god fearing country magistrate who is called upon by his fellow members of Parliament to exact radical change and reform in England for a government for and by the people.
Cromwell is prepared to leave England with his family for a life in the New World until he is persuaded to return to London and to sit once again in the newly resumed Parliament with its members in order to take their grievances to the King who encroaches on their lands and steals it from commoners for the rich, a policy which angers Cromwell and his fellows immensely.
King Charles (Guinness) allows Parliament to resume after eleven years in order to gain their support and to raise money against the Scots and Irish who are threatening England with invasion. Cromwell and the rest of Parliament refuse to grant the King money in order to fight until their demands are met.
Charles fears that if common men were to govern themselves, he would merely be reduced to just a figure head and lose his god given right to rule England and the Church of England which he is a devout member of, even though his French wife is a practicing Catholic. Charles along with his Catholic wife who demands him to stand firm against such an ultimatum from his subjects, refuses to come to terms with Parliament’s requests and the country steers ever closer to civil war.
Like all period films, there are many facts and many liberties taken with certain events for dramatic purposes. The sheer scope of The English Civil War is a very confusing and interesting time in English history due in part of the radical concept that a country could abolish its monarchy, and establish a true democratic government which would create and maintain those laws for its citizenry. In one scene when Cromwell and his men present their demands to the King for a constitutional monarchy, the King scoffs at their notion saying that the Greeks had tried democracy and that it was a failure. Cromwell believes that such a government could exist and that it would make England the strongest country in the world. This in fact was a scene that was created for dramatics. In actuality, Cromwell and Charles met only once while the King was under house arrest on the Isle of Wight in 1648.
For the most part, the film is very well directed by Ken Hughes with very good performances from Harris and Guinness especially. The battle scenes are well coordinated and the costumes and weaponry are very good replicas. My favorite scene in the film is when Charles is found guilty and is sentenced to death by the Parliamentary forces following the long and bloody civil war. Cromwell and others learned through the King’s former adviser Sir Edward Hyde (Nigel Stock) that the King was in fact negotiating with Catholic nations and the Pope to destroy the New Model Army and to resume his fight with Parliamentary forces in order to reclaim the throne. This action forces Cromwell and others to eliminate the King who is still very powerful and a threat to their cause.
Charles goes to a very noble death which moves his most ardent critics, especially Cromwell who expresses very little satisfaction in the event. As the film builds to it’s conclusion, members of Parliament are divided on their plans for a reformed government which leads to Cromwell staging a coup d’ etat much like the King had in order to keep his power. Cromwell’s friend and close ally Henry Ireton (Jayston) turns to Cromwell and says “I believe we killed a King for this” as Parliamentary troops remove its members from the hall. The film concludes informing the audience that Cromwell remained as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland until Charles’ son returned to England as King Charles II in 1658, changing the King’s role forever in England.
As a former military history major in college, I try to separate fact from Hollywood when it comes to film adaptations. Cromwell, Ireton, and several other roles are somewhat exaggerated leading up to the outbreak of the war. When Charles came to Parliament to arrest the five architects, they were actually John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, William Strode, and Sir Arthur Hesilrige. When Charles sits in the speaker’s chair he says “the birds have flown” when the five men escaped in order to avoid capture by the King’s guards. That was based in actual fact.
At the battle of Edgehill in 1642, Cromwell was portrayed as a Colonel, he was actually a Captain. He was promoted to Colonel in 1643 as he led his cavalry unit The Ironsides to victory.
At the battle of Naseby in June 1645, the New Model Army is supposedly outnumbered by the Royalists 2:1. In the actual battle it was vice versa. A slight hiccup when it came to the film’s alleged ten year research.
One of my gripes with the film was that there was no depiction of the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644. This was the biggest battle of the war where Cromwell and The Earl of Manchester’s army played an important role in final victory for Parliamentary forces. I guess Columbia Pictures was unable to raise more money for such an epic battle. Nevertheless, the film is very well done and a rousing old fashion epic from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Cromwell is available on DVD from Columbia/Sony and can be rented via Netflix.