Winstanley

review by David Gardiner

You poor take courage, you rich take care, This Earth was made a Common Treasury for everyone to share, All things in common, all people one.

Leon Rosselson "The Diggers' Song"

"But everyone shall put their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all; when a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next store-house he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be the common Treasury for every man"

Gerrard Winstanley

We don't really live in an age of idealism any more. There is a cycle to the comings and goings of such things. But many of us are old enough to remember the posters of Che Guevera that bedecked the wall of every student bedsit through the late 60s and early 70s, and the passionate all-night student arguments, with stained and chipped mugs filled with black coffee on the floor beside us and Bob Dylan wailing softly in the background, when we worked-out all those definitive blueprints for human society: characterised typically in terms of what society would not contain, such as governments, armies, money, possessive sexual relationships, private property, national boundaries, social classes, privilege, end of term exams, nagging parents....  One thing we knew for certain: when our turn came, we would not be the same. We would not participate in and recreate the world into which we had been born. Sometimes I still wonder where it all went wrong.

We were not the first generation to feel these things and to dream these dreams. Very far from it. Since the days of Plato and Socrates and long before people have looked at the way their societies worked and dreamed of fundamental changes. And of course it didn't always stop at theory. Most of the present-day nations of the West and many of those of the Third World and the East have emerged from social revolutions and civil wars: America, Russia, China, France, Viet Nam, South Africa and Ireland to name but a few. It might surprise a lot of educated British people to be told that our nation too belongs on this list, but such is the case. In the middle of the 17th Century we executed our king and fought a bloody civil war to determine what kind of a society our children were going to live in. Not only soldiers and gather-up armies battled against one another, ideas did too. It was an age of great and largely forgotten visionaries: men and women who believed that they could see a way forward to a new and better form of social organisation, some principle whereby we could share the wealth of the earth more equitably and live our lives in peace without hurting one another, some way to smash the "mind-forged manacles" that held all the different strata of society equally in bondage.

One of the foremost of these visionaries was Gerrard Winstanley. He argued that the ordinary people of Britain had been enslaved ever since the Norman invasion, by the control of the land, the most fundamental of all "means of production", by the Lords of Manors, and he suggested in the most peaceful possible terms, how the earth, our common Treasury, might be shared out again.

In April 1649 a band of about 40 Diggers, inspired by Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard began to dig uncultivated common land on Saint George's Hill in Cobham, Surrey, building simple houses in which to live, sharing all their goods and produce in common. As word spread, and the privileged woke up to the implications of this tiny token action, the authorities turned hostile. The commune was dispersed by government troops, Everard and Winstanley arrested, tried, and heavily fined. Each new attempt to get the community started was crushed, by violence, harassment and intimidation. Nevertheless, despite all government opposition to the experiment, the Cobham colony lasted until 1651. The Diggers inspired other colonies in other parts of England also, but ultimately none of them could stand up to the forces mobilized against them. Winstanley's dream was a wonderful, humanitarian vision of a gentler, more just and happy world; a dream that came again to other people in succeeding centuries, but for whose realization we are still waiting.

The film Winstanley attempts to paint a portrait of this extraordinary man, his personality and motivations and the times in which he lived. There are no compromises. It was created by the same team who, twelve years earlier, produced It Happened Here, a chilling fantasy of a wartime England under German occupation. Andrew Mollo, the Artistic Director and Co-Director on both projects, is simply incapable of compromise where historical accuracy is concerned. From the agricultural tools that the people use, to the breeds of pigs and chickens that they tend, to the willow from which the walls of the poor peoples' houses are woven, to the stitching in their tunics -- wherever you look, everything is simply right. This is the closest to 17th Century England that you are going to get, short of time-travel. The film deserves to be seen for that alone.

But in addition to the sheer treat of the perfection of the costumes and sets, the film also contains some of the most harrowing emotional content of any historical drama of which I am aware. There are no crude "good guys" or "bad guys" in Winstanley, nobody is demonized or trivialized or one-dimensional. It is a story almost entirely of well-intentioned people who are either inspired by or profoundly threatened by the idea of a whole new human order, and who react accordingly. This could not be further removed from a simple-minded political tract. It is a serious attempt to understand the social and individual psychology of idealism. More simply, it is an examination of the way people hurt one another without wanting to in the pursuit of what they genuinely believe to be the best. Idealists are never easy to cope with, never comfortable people to know.

Winstanley himself is played by a teacher and amateur actor, Miles Halliwell, who played the Nazi lecturer in It Happened Here. He is a very fine choice for the role, having enormous screen presence, a compelling single-mindedness and total integrity about his personality, and exactly the right quality of being "a man apart". He is just as convincing as Winstanley as he was when he played the smooth apologist for Fascism in the earlier film: an arresting thought in itself! The only professional actor in the cast is Jerome Willis, who gives a powerful but never aloof performance as General Fairfax, radiating the confidence of noble birth in every scene in which he appears. He epitomizes the system of social class and privilege in the face of which the Diggers seem puny adversaries indeed.

The film, like the novel on which it is based, is shot through with a sense of inevitable tragedy. From its opening scene on a windswept hillside where Parson Platt (David Bramley) and Winstanley try vainly to communicate with one another, their voices almost drowned-out by the roaring gale, to the heart-rending close-up of Winstanley's face in his final despair, seen through the pouring rain in the film's closing moments, we know that this bright socialist vision is not to be. At least not yet. And this is the thought with which the film leaves us, stated like all of the narration, in Winstanley's own words. Social visions do not in fact die with their creators, they are merely set down like burdens carried a certain distance along the roadway, to be taken up by other fresh young travelers and carried a little further on another day.

There are not many books, or films, to which one can honestly attach a description like "inspirational". This is one of them.

(Note on availability: The video of Winstanley, which includes Eric Mival's documentary of the making of both this and the earlier Brownlow/Mollo film, can be obtained from the BFI at 10a Stephen Mews, London W1P 0AX. Their website is at http://www.bfi.org.uk/home.htm. It is rumored that Milestone Films in New York will be re-releasing both of the Brownlow/Mollo films for limited theatre runs early in 1999. [Editor's Note:  Both films did get a very limited theatrical release in the US, presumably by Milestone.])


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