“The condition of man... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”
“Life is nasty, brutish, and short”
― Thomas Hobbes.
Given that there is a paucity of worthwhile films on the English Civil War it is perhaps understandable that Ben Wheatley’s new film has received significant interest from the historians and mainstream newspapers. After all it is common knowledge that this period to quote one reviewer “is one of the most exciting and tumultuous periods in English and British history”. While film goers might or might not like the film, students of history in particularly the English revolution will feel short changed. I am unsure why Wheatley chose the setting of the Civil War he could have really put the setting anywhere he wanted within his limited budget.
The film pays so many homages to different film genres it is sometimes a little hard to keep up. The film is beautifully shot in black and white and clearly is influenced by the 1975 film Winstanley. Winstanley had as one writer put it a “stark monochrome beauty” to it. The film style pays homage to the Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein. It was clearly a labour of love for Brownlow and Mollo with a large degree of perfection for detail and costume. Winstanley was produced on an extremely small 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. Like Winstanley A Field in England has a resonance with the German expressionist films of the 1920s and 1930s,
While the style of the two films are similar the substance is entirely different. A Field in Britain offers no real insight into the ideological differences that arose during the Civil war. However, if you wish to see a film that beautifully photographed, funny in parts, disturbing and in many places violent and crude film, then this is it.
It would be mistaken to believe that the film has no philosophical basis. Wheatley’s apparent limited understanding of the Civil war does not stop him portraying his characters coming straight out of Thomas Hobbes book Leviathan. In other words, ‘nasty, poor, brutish, and short’.
The film has a very basic plot line. Shot on a very small budget and is only 90 minutes long. Following the life four deserters. While it is unclear which side the deserters came from I would hazard a guess that three came from Parliaments side and one Whitehead was a Royalist sympathizer. Little is seen of the battle that our ‘heroes’ flee from they stumble into a field which is entirely where the film is set.
After eating some magic mushrooms, the group comes under control of what seems a devil like figure O’Neil played very well by Michael Smiley.
O’ Neil has been has been pursued by our anti- hero Whitehead. What plays out is largely a battle between good and evil.
Is A field in England a fair reflection of the times we live in? One perceptive reviewer Ms. Annette Bullen attempted to answer this question
“In fact I think that both these films reflect their times and the concerns of the day. Winstanley began shooting in the late 1960s at the end of the period where Marxist historians’ interpreted the English Civil War as a revolution. It was released in 1975 and this, rather neatly, coincided with a shift in the interpretation of these events in favour of new revisionist interpretations. So the earnest and urgent call for revolution which began in the 1960s had, by the time of the film’s release, been taken over by a reinterpretation of the Civil War as being more evolutionary, stressing the importance of attempting to understand events and evidence in context rather than as a stage in a Marxist interpretation of history.
A Field in England, too, reflects our current times. Religion, a fundamental part of society during the 17th century, hardly features, with only one of the five characters being in anyway religious and the others sneering or indifferent to his prayers and his god. They would rather go to the pub to have a beer and a good stew than go to church. Nor are any of the characters interested in politics or the huge events taking place around them. Cromwell and the King are mentioned but these soldiers are self-interested and self-absorbed, fighting for an unknown cause with little conviction. They make a total contrast to Winstanley’s New Model Army, who carry copies of ‘The Case of the Armie’ in their hats and debate at Putney their rights within the society for which they have fought”. (http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1446)
The fact that A Field in England has no Marxist revolutionary ideology, indeed no ideology of any kind is sad reflection of the state of current historiography. While the film does have merit it would appear to me a wasted opportunity.