“We could certainly do with a new Winstanley to help today” Kevin Brownlow
“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 “.Diggers Song.
Winstanley is the stunning 1975 film about the 17th-century revolutionary Digger Gerrard Winstanley. To begin with,, anyone who is looking to view this movie should at least have a basic understanding of the English revolution. To get even more enjoyment out of the movie, they should acquaint themselves with the left wing of that revolution the Diggers and to a lesser extent the Ranters.
The film has as one writer put It a “stark monochrome beauty” to it. The film style pays homage to the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The film was clearly a labour of love for Brownlow and Mollo with a large degree of perfection for detail and costume. Winstanley was produced on a minuscule budget £24,000 with a volunteer cast apart from one professional actor, first shown in 1975. This review is of the digital re-mastering carried out by the British Film Institute.
What was Brownlow’s inspiration from making this film? Like many people he had become disillusioned with the political set up (this was in 1975),”The Labour Party is no longer the Labour Party. Nor is the Conservative Party. You can hardly tell the difference. We are in a real mess. And I don’t know where we’re heading.”.
Why should anyone want to see this film and what relevance does it have today. Like under four hundred years ago we live in a time of wars, revolution and economic upheaval. Social inequality still exists, and democracy does not exist for millions of people. So in this respects, we are not so far away from the people who fought in the English Civil War.
According to the writer Marina Lewycka who worked on the film “ it is no coincidence that there should have been a renewed surge of interest in Winstanley and the Diggers in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when the spirit of revolution was out on the streets, and latter-day Diggers were occupying campuses and squatting houses and apartment blocks. I was a starry-eyed young PhD student in 1970, researching radical thought in the 17th century. What drew me to Winstanley was not only his political radicalism but that he seemed to have a "psychological" understanding of the biblical narrative, unusual at that time, as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil which took place in every human heart”.
The director of Winstanley Kevin Brownlow like some people had not heard of his subject matter before starting work on the film. The fact that the movie is so good is, even more, testimony to him and co- director Andrew Mollo’s enthusiasm to learn about Winstanley and apply that learning with such startling effect.
Lewycka explains the ethics behind the making of the film “in some ways, the making of the movie Winstanley mirrored the endeavour of the original Diggers. It was an enterprise held together by a shared belief that commitment was more important than money, a lack of hierarchy that occasionally bordered on the anarchic, the spirit of voluntarism, good humour, camaraderie, stoicism in the face of setbacks, and a willingness to submit to the rigours of English dirt and English weather in pursuit of a higher purpose. Like Winstanley, we had our priorities straight. We knew that fame, fortune and ambition were not what it was about; what mattered was doing it properly”.
It is only recently that a systematic study of Winstanley has started to emerge. The recent publication of his collected works is one indication of the trend to restore Winstanley to his place as one of the most prominent figures of the English civil war.
He is certainly a figure that according to Christopher Hill who turned the world upside down.
His form of utopian communism was influenced by John Lilburne and his fellow Levellers. But in ideological terms, he went further than the Levellers in both actions and words.
The egalitarian nature of his philosophy was captured in his pamphlet “The New Law of Righteousness”, written in 1648. “Selfish imaginations”, he said had lead one man to rule over another. “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.”
Cromwell does not appear in the film which is a pity because along with Ireton he was the chief ideological opponent of the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters not Fairfax who does appear in the movie. Cromwell’s rebuke to Winstanley “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces, or they will cut you in pieces.”
Winstanley founded his commune of Diggers at St George’s Hill, Surrey. The film portrays with heart-breaking accuracy the tremendous poverty of the people belonging to the commune. Who also faced increasing violence at the hands of both New Model Army soldiers and the local population.
The commune was to last only two years. Within in that two years, other communities began to spring up, but these were eventually dissolved. In many ways this was a movement way ahead of its time.
The film has mixed reviews which are a little harsh as Brownlow admits “No artist is ever satisfied. We did the best we could at the time. ”I wanted to be a professional director, making films with a social context here or in Hollywood, If I hadn’t made those first two features outside the industry, and taken a more regular route, I might have achieved that ambition. Money is essential in making films. If you get enough of it, it gives you time to make them properly – and time ensures quality. That’s why cheap pictures are usually so awful and why Hollywood spends hundreds of millions to achieve the standards of epics like Titanic.”
Winstanley is a superb film. See it if you can. More could have done to explore the ideological differences that occurred during the war. Perhaps in this one case more money would have helped. Having said that Winstanley is still a little gem.
(1) Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley: Warts and All, 320 pages UKA Press (8 May 2009)ISBN- 1905796226
(2) The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley Hardcover Thomas N. Corns (Editor), Ann Hughes (Editor), David Loewenstein (Editor) OUP Oxford (24 Dec 2009)