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Winstanley (1975)


Main image of Winstanley (1975)
35mm, black and white, 96 mins
DirectionKevin Brownlow
 Andrew Mollo
Production CompanyBFI Production Board
ProducersKevin Brownlow
 Andrew Mollo
Script ConsultantMarina Lewycka
PhotographyErnest Vincze
MusicSergei Prokofiev

Cast: Miles Halliwell (Gerrard Winstanley); Jerome Willis (Lord General Fairfax); Terry Higgins (Tom Haydon); Phil Oliver (Will Everard); David Bramley (Parson John Platt); Alison Halliwell (Mrs Platt)

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1649. With poverty and unrest sweeping England following the Civil Wars and the failure of the Levellers to secure voting rights for non-landowners, a group of impoverished people, the Diggers, form a settlement on St George's Hill in Surrey under the leadership of General Winstanley.

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Kevin Brownlow is better known as a film historian than as a director of feature films, but he brought an historian's passion for authenticity and detail to the production of Winstanley. Together, he and co-director Andrew Mollo, a costumier and historical consultant, recreated a small patch of 17th century England on which to stage the tragic drama of Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers, a small band of Christian communists who farmed in common on St George's Hill in Surrey.

Though expert, the production was amateur. Unable to acquire funding, Brownlow and Mollo filmed at weekends over the course of a year, as and when participants were available. Schoolteacher Miles Halliwell's performance as Winstanley is otherworldly, balanced by the steady menace projected by the sole professional actor Jerome Willis as General Fairfax. Winstanley makes the most of informality and improvisation in scenes of the commune, while the words of Winstanley himself, taken verbatim from his tracts, are narrated by Halliwell.

Although Winstanley strips its literary source, David Caute's Comrade Jacob, of some of its reflectiveness, the film is also subject to contemporary influences. The English Left has always remembered the English Civil War, and the noble but doomed struggle of the Diggers to establish a fair and equitable society had a particular appeal after the political and social upheavals of the late 1960s. Though Sid Rawle, who plays the leader of the radical religious dissenters the Ranters, was in real life leader of a hippy commune known as the 'New Diggers', the Ranters' violent ideological contempt for the Diggers' practical communism (while accepting their hospitality) could also be seen as analogous to the relationship of hippies to the political movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Completed with support from the BFI Production Board, Winstanley might have been an amateur production, but is certainly not a naive one. From the opening battle montage and the use of Prokofiev's score for Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938), it is a film steeped in cinema history as much as social history. Winstanley was warmly received in many quarters, but Brownlow and Mollo never directed another feature together. It wasn't for lack of trying: an uncertain and cash-strapped British film industry never gave them a chance. Despite its radical subject-matter, Winstanley is not the product of an experimental or avant-garde British cinema, but an extraordinary example of a mainstream British cinema that never came into being.

Danny Birchall

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

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Video Clips
1. The Civil War (5:55)
2. Winstanley confronts Fairfax (3:30)
3. The Ranters arrive (2:07)
Original Poster
Production stills
Brownlow, Kevin (1938-)
The BFI Production Board: The Features