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Comrades (1986)

Courtesy of FilmFour Ltd

Main image of Comrades (1986)
35mm, 182 min, colour
DirectorBill Douglas
Production CompanySkreba Films
 Film Four
ProducerSimon Relph
ScreenplayBill Douglas
CinematographyGale Tattersall

Cast: William Gaminara (James Loveless); Philip Davis (Young Stanfield); Stephen Bateman (Old Tom Stanfield); Keith Allen (James Hammett); Patrick Field (John Hammett)

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In the 1830s a group of six Dorset farm workers formed a union in an attempt to win a fair wage for a fair day's work. They called a strike and were arrested and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years. They became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

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Comrades had a production history that was troubled even by Bill Douglas's standards. The problems of filming in England and Australia, the director's perfectionism, and differences with his initial producer, Ismail Merchant (before the latter departed to work on the dissimilar recreation of the past, A Room with a View (UK, d. James Ivory, 1985)), all contributed to delaying the film's limited general release until 1987, nine years after the final part of Douglas's trilogy was released.

Telling the story of the Dorset labourers whose transportation to Australia became central to trade union history, the film has a much broader canvas than Douglas's earlier work, but retains a focus on individual suffering and intimate personal detail. While events such as the Tolpuddle martyrs' trial are not directly portrayed, space is given to the daily existence of the village community at the film's centre. The gentry are played by established names such as Robert Stephens, but it is lesser known actors (and in particular Robin Soans as George Loveless) who hold centre stage.

The use of ellipsis means that the film's narrative can lack clarity. But rather than simply telling the story of the Tolpuddle martyrs, at the core of Comrades is both a respect for its protagonists' lives, and a concern with story-telling. The film introduces an array of pre-cinematic entertainments (from Magic Lantern to thaumatrope), and repeatedly emphasises performance, tableaux, silhouette, and spectatorial wonder. In one scene George Loveless complains to a Diorama showman that "What you offer, sir, is illusion. It's the real world I'd like to see. In our short lives we move about so little, we see so little." The irony rests not just in the fact that "move about" is exactly what Loveless does, but also in the film's own fascination with the power of illusion.

Guy Barefoot

*This film available on BFI DVD and Blu-ray.

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Video Clips
1. Opening (3:09)
2. Up the hill (3:18)
3. Outback photography (4:45)
Behind the scenes stills
Production stills
My Ain Folk (1973)
My Childhood (1972)
My Way Home (1978)
Audsley, Mick (1949-)
Davis, Philip (1953-)
Douglas, Bill (1934-1991)
Fox, James (1939-)
Jones, Freddie (1927-)
Redgrave, Vanessa (1937-)
Relph, Simon (1940-)
Stephens, Robert (1931-1995)
Windsor, Barbara (1937-)
Channel 4 and Film
They Started Here