You Have Been Watching…Bill Douglas’s Comrades
Can I tell you about a film which opens with a total eclipse, followed by some scenes of women who seem to be in a Monty Python sketch attacking a milling machine with pick axes. Then Alex Norton walks across the genitals of the Cerne Abbas Giant dressed in a top hat (Norton, not the giant). Have I got your attention? Then settle back and I’ll begin.
Bill Douglas is best known, if he is known by people at all, for his biographical trilogy My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home which Scots Whay Hae! reviewed in 2009. If you haven’t seen them then they are three of the most beautiful pieces of film from any British filmmaker, and whenever I watch them the question that always lingers is why he is not better known. Douglas is lauded by many film aficionados, the BFI have afforded lavish DVD versions of his films, but they deserve to reach the widest audience possible. The same goes for his epic final film, Comrades.
Comrades tells the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the group of six 19th century Dorset farm workers who, in the face of seeing their pay being reduced weekly, decide enough is enough and form a union to make a stand. For daring to oppose their ‘masters’ they are deported to Australia with other undesirables. But this is no simple historical piece of cinema. Comrades is always political while being cinematic; intellectually challenging as well as visually gorgeous. Douglas is a political aesthete who doesn’t believe that you can only have one while compromising the other.
The film boasts a fantastic cast, another page to the mystery as to why this film is widely unknown. You will be able to spot Phil Davies, Imelda Staunton, Keith Allen, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbara Windsor, Michael Hordern, dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, as well as two of Britain’s great actors James Fox and Robert Stephens (who for many will be Teddy Lloyd, lover of Jean Brodie, but who for me will always be Abner Brown from The Box of Delights). Add in Alex Norton taking on fourteen different roles and you can see that this is a slightly bizarre feast of great British acting talent. But amongst all these well known names one performance stands out.
The man who carries the film is Robin Soans (right) as the heroic George Loveless. Soans has gone on to have a solid career in TV, but his performance as Loveless is surely a career highlight. He is the saintly leader of men who is pushed over the edge into action, simply wanting a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work; a belief that is as relevant today as it’s always been. Loveless is a ‘good man’ and his decency and compassion radiates from the screen. He represents not only the working man, but also Douglas himself, both believing that people are born good before life attempts to change them, and that they know the right thing to do even when they choose to do otherwise. The suggestion is that to know and do the right thing is where the real struggle for the soul lies. This is unapologetic humanitarian filmmaking.
Which makes Comrades sound terribly worthy, but it is anything but. This is a treat for the senses, and aside from the performances and the politics it is the direction of Douglas that stays with you. As in his trilogy Douglas is unafraid to let the camera linger on the faces of his actors allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions. Every frame is a considered treat, and standout images include the cockroaches infesting George’s house, and mind; the horse who is treated better than those men in the field, and the minstrels leaving the village at dusk, an image so beautiful it should be hung on a wall. This is true epic filmaking which manages to retain its integrity against the spectacle and scope.
Douglas is also commenting on the power of cinema, and how that power is often abused. Among Alex Norton’s many turns is as the travelling Lanterna Magicka man, who traverses the land telling stories using his magical device. As the film progresses so we see the early progression of film as it moves from the simple use of shadows to become The Splendid Diorama, a light show with live music and performance. Even this early on we can see that there is a struggle between the use of this new medium to ask social/political questions and to simply entertain, and perhaps mollify. Douglas’s love of film is in every frame, and he is not going to make grey cinema simply to hammer home a point. He is the most European of British filmmakers, and his films are reminiscent of the best of Bergman and Fellini with another influence being the gentle surrealism of Powell and Pressburger. I am not suggesting that he is simply a follower of such legends, but absolutely their equal. If you love cinema then you have to see everything that Bill Douglas did in his all too short time.
Here is the trailer:
The film ends with George talking straight to the audience, a device which could have fallen flat, but which works because of its simplicity. We are being reminded that we have just seen a ‘morality play’ and now the actor breaks the fourth wall to appeal to those watching to take the lessons learned and make sure these things are not allowed to happen again, while acknowledging they already have. Comrades may be set in 1834 but it was filmed in the mid-1980s and this is as much a commentary on the devastation and the destruction of the mining, steel, shipbuilding and other industries that either had, or were being, destroyed often using similar management tactics as were tried on these martyrs. George Loveless is reminding us that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, but also that everyone has an opportunity to make a stand, to do the right thing.