Starring Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Timothy Dalton, Douglas Wilmer

Written and directed by Ken Hughes

It’s very difficult to make a historical interpretation for the silver screen that is both commercially successful and historically accurate.

It’s not that history itself isn’t interesting enough.  There are thousands of stories – whether wide sweeping gestures of great men’s great accomplishments, or the individual efforts that often get left behind by time’s pages – that often outdo fiction.  But the audience is a fickle sort (or perhaps I should say the all-too-assuming producers are?), and in order to sell the next great epic many changes to what we know as historical fact are made.  In effect, what isn’t chopped out completely is altered and colored to fit both political correctness as well as a myriad other factors that reflect the current age.

Cromwell is known by many – but not too many considering that the 1970 film goes pretty much unmentioned in most circles – as a film that not only takes historical shortcuts, but rewrites both chronology and fact itself.

Oliver Cromwell is a historical character even those with a small education in English history know a little about.  He was covered with warts, viciously anti-Catholic, occasionally cruel, and power-hungry.  He raised an army that took control of England, beheaded its King, and became England’s first non-Royal leader since Saxon days.

But Cromwell didn’t look like Richard Harris, didn’t speak with Harris’ Irish lilt that the actor almost successfully covers up, and while he most certainly walked around with assumptive authority, it was more of a waddle than a typical Harris strut.

But more potentially damning than the character is the characterization.

Cromwell’s very demeanor, look and opinions are polished and buffed to encompass a true patriot of democracy and staunch advocate of the common folk.

Cromwell is shown in the film as a devout lord, supportive of all things England – including its king, Charles I, before the unscrupulous, totalitarian tactics of said King drive him to Parliament.  There he moves from neutrality to extremism in mere moments, becomes not only a rebel leader but an overnight military genius while leading his own army, and eventually arrests the King himself for treason.

The reconstructed history lesson is also rife with ashamedly heavy-handed directorial tactics that put Cromwell on hero display.

Before battle, Cromwell looks into the camera and says something wonderfully anecdotal that is actually historically attributable to a knight from the Royalist side.  The battle of Naseby – the most important battle in the war – is rearranged so that Cromwell’s army is outnumbered by the King’s to a tune of 3:1.  In actuality, it was the Royalists who were the ones heavily outnumbered.

And before that battle, an aide, panic-stricken, remarks on the heavy enemy numbers. Cromwell, calm, retorts, “And was Gideon not outnumbered when he fought the Amalekites?”  Consulting the Bible for the first time since after-mass Catholic school, I found that Gideon warred against the heavy numbers of the Midianites, not Amalekites.

So why am I even writing about this movie?  It takes more artistic license than 2000’s bloody mess The Patriot, and casts an actor almost as unlike his title role as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror.

Guinness as the soft spoken, extravagant, and arrogantly stubborn Charles is a pitch-perfect representation of the King.  From his sad-looking, hooded eyes to his high forehead and culture-defining mustache, he looks the part better than any actor who ever attempted to play an English monarch.

And in the way he carries himself as Charles, the only plausible explanation for the success is that the production team must have traveled back to 1644 and nabbed the King as Guinness’s assistant.

The King is equal parts annoying and affecting, impossibly frustrating and yet, very relatable.  He refuses to listen to reason from his closest advisors, to the point that they are forced to turn against him.  He politely agrees to parley with dominant forces – whose tolerance for the monarchy hangs on a crumbling ledge – only to secretly plot another war against them.  He stands firm on a subject, but then immediately submits to the whispers of his French wife, as his monarchy and England crumbles around him.

And yet, there is pity and, yes, even a quiet reverence for him.  He was raised to believe he was chosen by God, that his rule is ordained and his word Gospel, and yet his kingdom’s people rally against him.  His inability to give power to Parliament is frustrating, almost to the point of stupidity, but seeing as how the monarchy had heretofore been the law of the land, one can’t help but understand.

When Charles is sentenced to death for treason – something the viewer expected as inevitability from the beginning –  Guinness’s shocked and deeply hurt face prompts us to reconsider what is actually happening, to realize how unprecedented, how devastating such an occurrence is.  The tragedy is in Charles’ own inability to reason and compromise, yes, but also in the fact that the unrivaled leader of an entire country was put onto trial and beheaded like a peasant thug.

So, yes, I credit Guinness’s role for how much I turned out liking Cromwell.  His role as stuttering, effeminate Charles fitted the antagonist slot well, opening up the requisite Cromwell characterization and dramatic plot turns, but  the side story concerning the King, his family and his chamber were the most effective parts of the movie.

Guinness’s acting did more wonders than the producers maybe imagined.  By being so effective in his own role, he overshadowed the shortcomings of other actors, whose roles, not talent, were questionable at times.  In contrast, his effectiveness in his own role allowed Cromwell to transcend the porous history it was stretching thin, adding credence and reassurance to a period drama so that the writing didn’t necessarily have to.  Nowadays I call this the “Hopkins Solution”; using a peerless legend to concrete a shaky period film.  Back then, it was all Guinness.

Cromwell wasn’t accurate, no, but as a period drama it was incredibly engrossing.  Its politics submerged the viewer into a rarely visited 17th century world of intrigue, while the bullheaded, testosterone-filled bouts of egomaniacy kept the suspense crackling.

And all it took was the tireless efforts of one of England – and the world’s – greatest thespians to turn a potentially lackluster drama, into a damn fine one.

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