If you ever get the chance to see either of these films at the cinema, just go. They are the only features made by Kevin Brownlow (in collaboration with Andrew Mollo), with whom some of you may be familiar as a historian of silent film and documentary-maker (on Monday we also saw his recent documentary of Cecil B De Mille, which has only been broadcast in the US so far; talk about a story of two halves).
I’m familiar with Winstanley, their beautiful, haunting film about the Diggers, released in 1975 but begun in the late 60s (and it is very much a film of its time), from the video release. But seeing it on the cinema screen was a new experience. The opening battle scene – impressive even when TV-sized – was awesome and deeply moving. Quite different in pace from the rest of the film, but it sets up the trademark loving closeup shots of the human face and figure; it was devastating then to see those individuals cut down in battle. The sacrifices and expectations raised by the wars and overthrow of the monarchical order set the context for the main part of the film, Gerard Winstanley’s attempt to create a self-supporting communitarian society at St George’s Hill.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that you know – even if you don’t know the history – that this is going to be a tragedy, that the attempt is always already doomed (even the environment is their enemy; it’s rare that you will see such a stark, harsh south-eastern England). The film, its making and its subsequent history, in some ways mirrors its subject. It was made on the tightest of budgets, largely reliant on volunteers and almost entirely on non-professional actors (some of the acting can seem very stilted; bear with it). It has subsequently been virtually unknown outside a small circle of worshippers – and early modern historians like me (I doubt I would otherwise ever have encountered it; even lefty devoted film-going friends who knew Brownlow’s documentary work and writing had not seen it before I showed them the video…).
However, I hadn’t seen It Happened Here (1964, but again the release date follows several years of production work) until last week. Fact: most counterfactual history is tosh. This is the real deal: it makes you think afresh about what did happen in history in the light of what might have. It’s dark, disturbing, terrifying, often blackly humorous; and it was made by a pair of teenagers. It is 1944; Britain was invaded by Germany in 1940. We see events from the perspective of a nurse, Pauline Murray (the actress’s real name, and it’s quite astounding to learn that she had never acted before, for her performance is remarkable and largely holds the sometimes very loose-knit fabric of the film together). She becomes a ‘collaborator’ in the belief (with many others) that the war is won and what matters now is to help put her country back together, despite the repugnant ideologies of the Nazis – and the sight of the Jewish ghetto.
The film was controversial when it came out; Brownlow and Mollo were forced to remove the most disturbing section of the film. It’s a sequence in which a group of real English fascists give spontaneous answers to a set of scripted questions. It probably will, and should, make you feel slightly ill. But this is only the most obviously shocking part of what made the film too uncomfortable for this country to stomach at the time: it challenged post-war complacency, the belief that we the British, the ‘bulldog breed’, were somehow different from those other Europeans who gave way to Nazi ideas and invaders so easily. Indeed, there is a superb ‘film within a film’, cleverly imagined and perfectly presented propaganda re-presenting the legendary Christmas Day football game of the First World War within a narrative of the closeness of the historical links between German and British – had it not been for the evil Bolsheviks and Jews causing them to fight each other.
But, for all that, it’s clear that much of the population’s compliance is sullen and fragile; sometimes their real feelings are expressed in terrible, spontaneous violence against collaborators, sometimes in more mundane ways, eggs ‘accidentally’ spilt on Pauline’s smart new uniform on a bus. The facial expressions of the observers give away nothing, and everything in their nothingness. They are the masks of those who live with hated conquerors. They are not rebels; few of us have the courage for that. And besides, the rebels too are hated by many. Pauline sees her closest friends killed, needlessly and senselessly, by them. One character observes grimly that the only way to destroy Fascism is by adopting its own methods. The film is clearly anti-fascist; but it is also, throughout, an indictment of the corrupting, brutalising, sickening effects of war. (Further articles.)
Originally posted September 2004