Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Pint of Guinness / The Curse of Cromwell

More of TCM's Month of Oscars programming from February:

They played a run of films featuring the O.G. Obi-Wan himself, Alec Guinness, most of which I'd seen before, and enjoyed again during this viewing. The Lavender Hill Mob I strongly recommend to those who like heist films and/or dry British humor. It is widely considered a masterpiece. Guinness plays small roles in David Lean's Great Expectations and Dr. Zhivago, which I also watched, but I want to expound upon a not-so-great film I saw for the first time, that helped fill in some gaps in my education…

Cromwell  (1970)
I nearly failed my sophomore year History of Western Civilization class in college due to having a serious girlfriend for the first time and being consumed by art and music. Because I had always been a naturally good student, it was a surprise to me how little I actual learned during that semester, receiving a D grade for the first and only time in my life. I state this upfront to confess that I did not know who Oliver Cromwell was, or what his legacy meant to to the histories of either England or Ireland. Now, thanks to TCM and Wikipedia, I know a bit more.

Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army" was the big hint that I was missing something. Didn't really get the joke until now.

First of all, the movie is not very good. Despite some handsome costumes and sets, it's bogged down by a thuddingly dull score, stagnant photography, and dull battle sequences. But the subject is fascinating: a classic example of trying to cram too much story into a modest length film. As many erudite comments on IMDb explain, beyond the historical liberties taken in order to condense the material into a digestible length, there is the whole other matter of tone: is it right to celebrate the achievements of a man who is responsible for genocide and creating the conditions from which the Irish "troubles" continued for centuries onward? 

While the movie consistently portrays him as a noble-minded hero, Cromwell (as over-played by the hammy Richard Harris - oddly enough, an Irishman) comes off as a douche. The fallen King Charles I (Alec Guinness) is more sympathetic and nuanced, which I'll credit to both the actor and the director. We feel for his dilemma and confusion as he is brought down, an event he never imagined could occur. Divine right of kings and all that… His public execution is the highlight of the film.

Famously, the film ends just as Cromwell becomes de facto dictator of England, and before his campaign to eradicate Catholic influence from Ireland. Only a few years after his Lord Protectorate ended, the British Isles returned to monarchy, though with a much stronger Parliament than before. Many today still consider him a British hero, but a vocal minority curse his name to this day. 

Movie trailer from TCM.

19th Century paintings by Hippolyte Delaroche 

Charles I Insulted by Cromwell's Soldiers
Cromwell and the corpse of Charles I

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