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Brownlow, Kevin (1938-)

Director, Writer, Historian

Main image of Brownlow, Kevin (1938-)

Kevin Brownlow's activities as a film historian and television documentary-maker have tended to erase both memory and recognition of the two extraordinary features he made in collaboration with Andrew Mollo. Both films reached the screen after considerable effort. It Happened Here, a 'what if' drama exploring an England under Nazi occupation, began production in 1956, concluded in 1963, and entered distribution through United Artists in 1966. Winstanley found an audience more speedily in 1976, but the 17th century Civil War story still took eight years to reach fruition. The films were the work of mavericks, shooting largely at weekends in between paid work as a film editor and historian (Brownlow) or a military and costume specialist (Mollo).

Kevin Brownlow was born in Crowborough, Sussex, on 2 June 1938. His passion for cinema struck early. He collected films from the age of eleven, and at the age of fourteen, with a 9.5mm camera, began making The Capture, an adaptation of a de Maupassant story, with its action updated from the Franco-Prussian war to 1940s France. The fascination with the Second World War continued in the much more ambitious It Happened Here, based on Brownlow's own story idea. The need for authentic details in costumes brought him in contact with Andrew Mollo (born London, 15 May, 1940), the son of a Russian émigré who had fought on both sides in the Russian Revolution. Serving as co-director, Mollo considerably strengthened the film's chilling realism.

During its long gestation (documented in his book How It Happened Here), Brownlow worked on documentaries, mostly for World Wide Pictures. It Happened Here emerged through its piecemeal production remarkably intact, with sharp editing, canny camera placements, evocative locations, and persuasively understated performances by the largely non-professional cast. Censor cuts were enforced in one sequence showing British fascists in full vocal flight; though the suggested ease in which Britain fell under Nazi control remained disturbing enough.

With its quiet urgency and novel subject-matter, It Happened Here became a critical and public success, but within the industry Brownlow and Mollo were speedily tagged 'uncommercial'. Eventually backed by the BFI Production Board, they soldiered on with their new project, based on David Caute's novel Comrade Jacob, with the Civil War's failed Leveller and Digger movements as the background. Mollo, meanwhile, served as a film consultant on Doctor Zhivago (d. David Lean, 1965), while Brownlow edited The Charge of the Light Brigade (d. Tony Richardson, 1968) and enjoyed considerable success with the book The Parade's Gone By... (1968), an influential celebration through interviews of Hollywood's silent era. Other projects championing silent cinema followed, notably the painstaking restoration of Abel Gance's Napoléon, first unveiled in 1980, and the Hollywood series (1980) produced with David Gill for Thames Television.

Not simply through hindsight does Winstanley appear as a silent film manqué. The film's strength lies in its images; its weakness lies in part in the earnest quantities of words, whether issuing from characters' mouths or placed in the commentary. Through editing, composition, rushing, hand-held camerawork, and Prokofiev's music from Alexander Nevsky (USSR, d. Sergei Eisenstein, 1938), the opening battle directly acknowledges Eisenstein and Gance. Other influences include Dreyer's play of faces and space, and the stark lyricism of Arthur von Gerlach's little-known classic Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (1925). Ernest Vincze's black-and-white camerawork creates eloquently mournful beauty from the Diggers' struggles with the land and authority: though static dialogue exchanges and elliptical plotting keep the overall dramatic impact muted.

On release in 1976, Winstanley demonstrated Brownlow and Mollo's estrangement from both Britain's mainstream and independent cinemas. The film did not fit the costume drama pigeonhole, nor did it pursue the Greenaway path towards elaborate games with form and content. Industry disinterest and the film's general reception pushed the filmmakers decisively towards other endeavours: for Mollo, chiefly production design (most strikingly on Mike Newell's Dance with a Stranger, 1984); for Brownlow, silent film presentations, a David Lean biography, and television portraits of Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, and other giants from the parade gone by.

Brownlow, Kevin, How It Happened Here (London: Secker and Warburg, 1969)
Brownlow, Kevin, 'Filming the Diggers', in Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1976, p. 92
Mival, Eric, It Happened Here Again (documentary, 1976)
Tibbetts, John C., 'Kevin Brownlow's Historical Films: It Happened Here (1965) and Winstanley (1975)', in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, v. 20 n. 2, 2000, pp. 227-251

Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of I Think They Call Him John (1964)I Think They Call Him John (1964)

Compassionate portrait of the life of an elderly and neglected widower

Thumbnail image of Nine, Dalmuir West (1962)Nine, Dalmuir West (1962)

Kevin Brownlow's elegiac portrait of Glasgow's last tram

Thumbnail image of Winstanley (1975)Winstanley (1975)

Powerful, acute portrait of the of 'Diggers' of Civil War England

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