This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
These eleven lines have entered the bastion of English literature and popular culture, granting titles to at least three movies. For some people in my home country, they still epitomize what is truly English. They stand as a once-shining beacon, the light from which has diminished down all the years and decades to the twenty-first century where it now exists as a dim penumbra, its flickering radius incorporating ‘The Archers’, cricket, cucumber sandwiches, the aristocracy and tacky royal family memorabilia marketed to easily impressed tourists.
Here’s how the Sex Pistols described in England in ‘God Save the Queen’ – the version that ought to be our national anthem.
God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
God save the queen
She ain't no human being
There is no future
In England's dreaming
Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future, no future
No future for you
To everyone who’s correctly intuited that I subscribe more to the Sex Pistols than William Shakespeare, award yourself a poster of the queen in gaudy colours with a safety pin through her nose.
There are some countries where you only have to mention their name and revolution comes to mind: Russia, France, Ireland, Cuba, Iran, Cambodia, Laos, Bosnia. Others, you just have to scratch the surface of their history: the American War of Independence, the Algerian War of Independence, the failed Hungarian Revolution, the Boxer Rebellion in China.
When was the last time we had an uprising in England? I’m not talking about the students protesting over fees last month (read the article Francisco posted on The Film Connoisseur yesterday if you want to know how bad students in Puerto Rico have it!) or the miners’ strikes of 1984-1985, or the punch-a-copper-for-peace protest marches of the same decade, or the race riots and National Front sloganeering of the 70s. I’m talking about actual revolutionary behaviour, not the “let’s chuck a paving slab at a police van, loot a couple of shops and then go down the pub” mindset that marks out England as a nation of fair-weather activists.
The answer is pitifully embarrassing: 400 years ago. The English Civil War of 1642 – 1651. Prior to that, Guy Fawkes’s gunpowder plot of 1605 marks the last real attempt to tear the whole edifice down. Just as there are still some people in England who buy into Shakespeare’s “other Eden” propaganda, there are plenty of us who consider it an according-to-Hoyle tragedy that Fawkes failed. It’s just as well, then, that cinema has been able to conduct our revolution for us.
The English Civil War is the backdrop to Michael Reeves’s ‘Witchfinder General’. Social unrest, political upheaval, religious bigotry and backwoods superstition are exploited by Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) as he travels the countryside extracting confessions from women accused of witchcraft. He claims he’s doing God’s work but charges a hefty fee for his services. Hopkins’s false belief is contrasted with that of Richard (Ian Ogilvy), a soldier fighting for the Roundheads under Cromwell who is also devout in his Christianity. His internal conflict between faith and militarism tips in favour of the latter during the brutal climax where he and his wrongly-accused fiancée Sara (Hilary Dwyer) are captured and tortured by Hopkins; the intervention of his comrades in arms turns the tables and Richard’s revenge against Hopkins sees him cross the line, possibly into madness.
Often bracketed as a horror film because of the ostensible witchcraft elements, ‘Witchfinder General’ is a highly political film in which Hopkins’s description of himself as a lawyer rather than the titular witchfinder demonstrates the bastardization of law into a form of free enterprise during lawless times. Factor in Reeves’s equally critical attitude towards the church and the army: ‘Witchfinder General’ takes to task as many British institutions as Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If…’.
Whereas ‘Witchfinder General’ plays out its central drama against the pages of history, ‘If…’ takes that most class-defined of British institutions – the public school (it’s one of the curiosities of the English language that “public school” actually means “private school”) – and uses it as a microcosm for society. The setting itself satirizes the outmoded stuffiness of academia; the interminable routines, inspections and displays of discipline bring to mind the military (the metaphor is made explicit when the students don army fatigues for a “war games” exercise); and the dull and pompous services attended by staff and pupils alike are a commentary on the stultifying traditionalism of the church. The class system itself is represented by the educational hierarchy: the staff are the upper echelons, paying lip service to the church; the prefects are the upstarts and nouveau riche, paying lip service to the staff while lording it over the rest of the pupils who themselves represent the working classes, constantly told what to do and reminded of their place.
One scene that cuts to the heart of English snobbery and social sadism has Travis (Malcolm McDowell) thrashed by a prefect for insubordinate behaviour. Travis is then obliged to thank his aggressor. The polemic is clear: the lower classes are treated like shit by their so-called betters and are expected to be grateful for it.
Travis, however, is not prepared to toe the line. Along with a small group of like-minded free-thinkers, he stages a revolution. Disrupting a church service at which a “Colonel Blimp” type military officer is giving a droningly patriotic speech, Travis’s attack is fought back against when a cross-section of the establishment – teachers, clergy, army personnel – return fire. A laugh-out-loud funny moment has an old dear in a floral print dress and a flowery hat start screaming “Bastards! Bastards!” as she grabs a Bren gun and cuts loose. It’s hilarious, but terrifying. It’s a reminder of how vicious the supposedly educated, defined and polite strata of society can become when their privileged lifestyles are threatened.
The film ends just minutes into the revolution. The counterattack has redoubled and it seems Travis and his comrades are on the verge of being overwhelmed. Nonetheless, they hold their positions, undaunted, guns blazing. The screen fades to black. At an early screening, Lindsay Anderson famously told a feverishly applauding audience, “The rest is up to you.”
‘If…’ is arguably British cinema’s greatest statement on the theme of revolution. It is to cinema what George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is to English literature. Orwell wrote his dystopian vision of the future in 1948 and simply transposed the last two digits of that year to come up with his title. Reapproaching both the novel and Michael Radford’s film version at the end of 2010, it struck me that, on a conceptual level, everything Orwell had written about has come to pass. Big Brother is watching you? CCTV. The Thought Police? Political correctness. The lottery, which the government promotes in order to keep the masses ameliorated with the thought of something better? The National Lottery. Doublespeak? Well, just tune into any given day’s parliamentary debate – these fuckers talk nothing but Doublespeak.
Radford’s vision of Orwell’s classic – despite a few niggling differences – is almost relentlessly oppressive. Winston Smith (John Hurt) works in a government department checking all press releases to ensure they are correctly couched in Doublespeak and do not make reference to “unpersons” (ie. those who have disappeared). The government is referred to as the Party. Citizens refer to each other, depending on gender, as “brother” and “sister” (a change to the more explicitly communist “comrade” in the novel). Every minute of Smith’s waking day is informed by a litany of official bulletins: successes in the campaign against Eurasia (a war which is possibly fictitious but allows the government to turn the focus away from social deprivations); ever higher figures in the manufacture of munitions; increases in the standard of living (despite all evidence to the contrary; the film inhabits a London of wastelands, grimy tenements and perpetually grey skies); denouncements against the seditious underground figure Emmanuel Goldstein (who is arguably as fictitious as the war); televised confessions of traitors; and everywhere – everywhere – the stern, all-seeing visage of Big Brother.
Smith’s rebellion is the quietest – but perhaps the most crucial – example of the revolutionary mindset. He doesn’t take up arms; he doesn’t exhort anyone else to rebel; he doesn’t plant bombs or commit acts of sabotage. All Winston Smith does is to think for himself. In a society so totalitarian that even thinking something contrary to what the Party tells you to think is outlawed. In keeping a diary; in discussing the writings of Goldstein with high-placed party member O’Brien (Richard Burton in his last film role; the movie is dedicated to his memory); and in his relationship with the outspoken Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), Smith commits thoughtcrime. In conducting an affair with Julia outside of the Party-sanctioned family unit, he commits sexcrime.
The punishment exacted by the Party for Smith’s trangressions – which accounts for the film’s gruelling second half – seems monstrously out of proportion to what Smith has actually done. But it’s in these scenes that the violence practiced by a government on the people breaks ground: hitherto, Radford has depicted propaganda, social deprivation and constant scrutiny as the tools of oppression; now, he unflinchingly depicts the very real physical and psychological violence the Party is prepared to utilize to keep the people in line.
If the Party is less evidently an allegory for communism in the film than in the book, then Joy Batchelor and John Halas’s starkly animated 1954 adaptation of another timeless political allegory by Orwell – ‘Animal Farm’. Here, the oppressive ruling classes are personified by Mr Jones, the drunken and bad-tempered owner of Manor Farm, a man who treats his animals like, well, animals. Old Major, a boar with socialist tendencies, calls a meeting and plants the seeds of rebellion in the animals’ minds. Unfortunately, Old Major dies before the revolution is accomplished. Two pigs step up as figureheads: the progressive-thinking Snowball and the bullish (if that’s not a mixed metaphor) Napoleon. Napoleon is appropriately named: he wants leadership and power for their own sake. Snowball, however, educates himself and formulates an agrarian and technological plan designed to increase productivity on the now-renamed Animal Farm.
You don’t have to be a student of Russian history to recognize Napoleon as Stalin and Snowball as Trotsky. Accordingly, the moment the revolution is successfully staged and Mr Jones deposed, Napoleon decides Snowball is a threat and has him run off the farm. Napoleon then employs the equally appropriately named Squealer to tarnish Snowball’s reputation. A few animals sympathetic to Snowball and/or critical of Napoleon are brutally made an example of. Napoleon and his clique of fellow pigs then rule the farm by committee. The novel’s key line – brilliantly conjured visually by Batchelor and Halas – has the other animals looking in at Napoleon and his coterie, who have now moved into the farmhouse, and being unable to differentiate between pigs and men.
As with Radford’s take on ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, the filmmakers make certain deviations from the novel, particularly in relation to the character of Boxer, a hard-working carthorse. His simplistic mindset and unwitting complicity in Napoleon’s rise to power are diluted in the film; likewise, Batchelor and Halas deliver a cathartic finale in which the animals are inspired to rise up again, this time against Napoleon, whereas the novel ends with the pig/men scene.
These, however, are the only punches that the film version of ‘Animal Farm’ pulls. Elsewhere, its evocation of English attitudes – particularly the tendency to moodily bitch about things down the pub instead of doing something about them (pace Mr Jones at his local The Red Lion, a quintessential pub name) – and the less-than-idyllic reality of farm life (fuck ‘The Archers’; this is the real deal) is bang on the nail. The harsh conditions of Napoleon’s regime, the exploitation of Boxer and the corpulent degeneracy of the pigs is brought to life in suitably non-prettified animation. Watching this movie is an experience best described as the anti-Disney.
So far, we’ve looked at films which depict revolutions at various stages; those in ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ fail (on account of, respectively, the protagonist being driven over the line, the system crushing the free thinker, and the revolutionaries being corrupted by power and the cycle beginning again); whereas ‘If…’ ends just at the point of revolution.
Standing alone in this small canon of films about revolution in England, ‘V for Vendetta’ ends on the bitter-sweet note of the revolutionary’s death and the successful orchestration of his supreme act of anti-establishmentarianism – a grandiose symphony of symbolic destruction that sounds out a siren call to the masses and incites a public uprising. Adapted from Alan Moore’s provocative graphic novel, ‘V for Vendetta’ – directed by first-time helmer James McTeigue and written and produced by the Wachowski Brothers – depicts an England not too dissimilar to that of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. In a piece of reverse casting that is pure genius, John Hurt plays High Chancellor Adam Sutler, the Big Brother-style leader of the Norsefire party. Or you could just say the Party; similarities to ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ are palpable, right down to the omnipresence of Sutler’s stern visage. Parallels with thoughtcrime and sexcrime are also present, the latter particularly emphasized by the Norsefire party’s reversion to the British law, repealed in the 1960s, that made homosexuality a crime. Censorship is rife, as Evey (Natalie Portman) discovers in her work for the British Television Network. Enemies of the state disappear. A curfew is in place.
It’s when Evey breaks the curfew and is caught by members of the secret police that she meets the masked revolutionary known only as V (Guy Pearce). It’s here that the parallels between ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ diverge. Orwell’s revolutionary, Emmanuel Goldstein, is probably a fiction of the Party and his most meaningful contribution to any campaign of resistance is the authorship of a seditious book. In ‘V for Vendetta’, we have the infinitely more proactive V, who is introduced to us beating the crap out of Evey’s aggressors and – as an encore – blowing up the Old Bailey.
V’s mask is in the likeness of Guy Fawkes, so it’s a foregone conclusion which famous piece of London architecture is earmarked for destruction in the crowd-pleasing and iconic finale. By this time, V has sustained mortal wounds during a clash with secret police during which he discovers the Sutler is as expendable as anyone else and that behind every figurehead there is always a faceless eminence grise wielding the real power. It is left to Evey to active the London Underground train loaded with explosives that destroys the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
I said near the start of this article that there are still plenty of us in England who regret that Guy Fawkes’s attempt to destroy the houses of parliament – an act intended to shatter the very seat of government – failed. It took four hundred years, the efforts of the Wachowski Brothers and about fifty million dollars of American studio money to finally achieve it, albeit only in fiction.
Ah well, you takes your revolution where you finds it.
(Don’t forget to head over to The Film Connoisseur for Franco’s insightful article on the cinematic representations of Che Guevara.)