Though more famous and widely recognised for film restoration and archiving (for which he received an Academy Award for) Kevin Brownlow’s second shared feature film with Andrew Mollo, Winstanley (1975), is a masterpiece of traditional, historic cinema. It not only captures the feel of the era that produced an amalgamation of tradition-based horror cinema but showed that, through using a number of classical cinematic techniques, that film could still be timeless and its age of production indefinable.
Winstanley is a man who wants what many still crave today; the equal treatment and rights of people through the land of England based squarely on work and not property or excessive amounts of land. The year is 1649 and Gerard Winstanley has written a pamphlet explaining the right of the common people to plough the land no matter whose ownership it lies in. The narrative follows the constant clashes and harsh bias shown towards those who have nothing; the constant attacks from the gentry of the land and their use of law to defend their property from The Diggers make up large parts of the film.
However, Winstanley never feels like a full blown period drama, even though this is effectively what it is. The description of period drama simply doesn’t do it justice and brings up all sorts of romanticised imagery, lavish scores and soft focus excess. Instead Brownlow and Mollo stay true to their story and opt for an almost baroque approach to filming and fitting together the structure of the story. Brownlow’s already deep immersion into silent cinema directors is apparent from the opening battle scene and narrative grounding which uses a variety of methods to almost pay homage to them.
The battle sequence instantly recalls Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and the battle on the ice. The rows of horsemen and pikes are supplanted into diametrical lines providing wonderful shapes and contrasts to the open area where the scene is shot. The very first shot is obtusely located behind a bush of thistle, focussing on the plant and not the battle preparations behind them. This sort of visual metaphor, built on contrast as well as context, is a common tactic, especially in Weimar Germany silent cinema and is a clear homage as well as a suitable opening. The final element on the homage comes from the use of Prokofiev’s score for Eisenstein’s battle sequence, the scenes seeming to share a number of obvious and impressive parallels (especially so considering the budgetary limitations of Winstanley).
Winstanley is not just about stunning visuals or silent homage. Its message is one of questioning at all costs; never taking for granted the imbalance that breeds in a society obsessed with wealth and land. Of course Winstanley and his growing band of Diggers could move from the constant attacks they receive and the film spends a lot of time showing the philosophical debates surrounding the ownership of land and the country. Because of this and Winstanley’s consistent voice-over, the film has a documentary feel. This balance between the naturalistic elements brought about by the use of few professional actors and the obvious stylised elements is perfect. Light shines bright through the windows of property in Kubrick-like way (also recalling elements found in Barry Lyndon (1975)) while the characters are filmed in deep discussion and debate. The Diggers move freely and naturally over the land while in other shots, the composition speaks of great care with light and shadow building tapestries with skylines and forests.
Through subject matter and style, Winstanley also highlights the key movement in British horror of the era, providing a focal point for all of the folk horror surrounding it. The likes of Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) use this aesthetic as their starting point to bring horror out of the soil and earth but Winstanley is unique in using it to question the politics of the day. Whereas period drama from even then, were used in a nostalgic way to rewrite the past and make it seem golden and beaming with optimism, Winstanley cuts through rose-tinted vision and replaces it with reality bristling with mud, toil and worried chatter of General Cromwell.
One final aspect to note is the film’s beautiful, quintessentially British soundworld. The forests of Surrey are the film’s main haven and so the sounds of this beautiful place provide an equally stunning soundworld. The calls of blackbirds and woodpigeons sit alongside the wind rustling the woodland trees and branches, providing a horrific contrast to the sounds of humanity when the Diggers dwellings are attacked. Perhaps the most significant sound comes from the film’s use of genuine strong winds from the hills. Even when characters are debating something vital when standing within the vast landscape, the sound mix puts emphasis on the wind which is almost blowing the characters over.
This elemental force also reinforces the final message of the film. Even with the pedantic law and infuriating intolerance from the gentry of the land, the place itself and its elements will never truly be theirs. As they debate in almost Shakespearian dialects and take away Winstanley’s livelihood and cows, the man and his ideas live as they fight on in the most British of rebellions; continuing to live off the land.