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Comrades (1986)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

An outbreak of machine-breaking is violently surpressed in early 1830s Dorset. An itinerant lanternist watches, before moving on to the village of Tolpuddle, where the impoverished lives of the villagers contrasts with the wealth of local landowner, Frampton. A further division separates the Anglican Churchgoers from those who attend the simpler, more communal Methodist Chapel. The latter include the preacher, George Loveless, his brother James and his wife Betsy, Old and Young Stanfield and, when he storms out of the Anglican service, James Brine.

Visiting John and Bridget Hammett - hard workers, unlike John's brother James - George Loveless suggests they join together with other carpenters and ask for more payment for the chairs they are making. He later persuades Frampton's foreman to see if the landowner will accept a better price. The chairs are returned unsold.

Incidents such as Brine's courting of Elvi Stanfield provide brief respite from the villagers' life of intense labour for little reward. When their already meagre wages are further reduced, George sets up a union, travelling to Dorchester to have a banner made. A chance encounter there with Frampton is followed by an arranged meeting with the more sympathetic magistrate, Mr Pitt.

At night, a group of labourers swear allegiance to the union. A delegation from the village goes to Frampton's house; they are assured that their wages will be raised, but the next payday they receive even less. The men walk out. On a winter's night six of them are arrested: George and James Loveless, Old and Young Stanfield, James Brine and James Hammett (who has been mistaken for his brother).

When Pitt pleads the men's case with Frampton and the Vicar, the latter denies that any more money was promised. The case excites considerable interest, but the six men are sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia, partly on the basis of information supplied by Legg, one of those who joined the union. Legg is subsequently turned away from Frampton's house, and he deserts the village with his two girls. In contrast, Betsy Loveless is given financial help from the London-Dorchester Committee, which has started a petition in support of her husband and the other men.

Arriving in Australia, George Loveless is told he must walk about three hundred miles to his destination. He befriends another convict, a young boy named Charlie. Charlie steals his food. Another of the men, Brine, is put to work in a chain gang. A member of the gang who attempts to escape is captured and whipped by the sadistic overseer. The gang members enact a murderous revenge.

Meanwhile, Old Stanfield has become a servant in the household of the Governor of New South Wales, and a particular favourite of Flower, the Governor's young daughter. Charlie has also become one of the Governor's servants, but runs away when he is dismissed for clumsiness. The boy then meets Young Stanfield, who is on his way to see his father. Charlie leads him in the wrong direction, deserting and robbing him when they arrive at an orange orchard. For his trespass Young Stanfield is tied up and staked to the ground.

James Loveless is employed by Mrs Carlyle, a widowed landowner who tries to persuade him to stay on in Australia, before giving him a letter from George Loveless, which reveals that a pardon has been granted. James encounters an Italian photographer in the outback, before rejoining his brother and four of the other men from Tolpuddle. James Hammett, who is not present at the reunion, is auctioned off to a fop, who uses him and other men to shunt his own railway carriage. The fop has also adopted Charlie, who is allowed to ride with him in the carriage. Hammett's resentment leads him to engineer a crash. The severely injured fop, revealed to be an ex-convict himself, has Hammett sent to the penal settlement in Norfolk Island.

Back in England, a reception is held for the other Tolpuddle men, hosted by Pitt. Thanks are given to the various trades who have supported the cause, and to the lanternist for his telling of the story. George Loveless appeals for working men to unite.