In May, 1783, in Fishkill, New York, a group of American Revolutionary Army officers founded the General Society of the Cincinnati. They christened their association in honor of the farmer Cincinnatus, who saved the Roman Republic by leading its armies to victory against the Aequians, but rejected the offer of dictatorship to return to his life as a rural farmer. And they chose as their first President General George Washington, the already mythologized Cincinnatus of his day.
The Oliver Cromwell imagined in Ken Hughes’ eponymous 1970 epic emerges as the missing historical link between Cincinnatus and his revolutionary descendants, an exemplary rural gentleman democrat, acting selflessly on behalf of the common people.” It’s a nice story, but about as far from the 17th century and Oliver Cromwell, Esq. of Huntingdonshire, England, as Timbuktu or the penguin colonies of Antarctica.
But there’s no sign in this movie that inaccuracy perturbs writer/director Hughes, who fashioned from his fantasies a watchable entertainment that intersperses historical re-enactment with the film’s obvious raison d’etre, set piece speeches by Richard Harris as Cromwell. He gathers a clutch of British actors from one of the most exciting periods in British theater, all delivering Hughes’ literate, wordy script with an obvious joy in the sheer flexibility of the English language. Geoffrey Unsworth’s controlled cinematography showcases their physical and intellectual abilities (although Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert was obviously as inept in his youth as he was in his maturity). The interiors, in particular, convey the austerity of 17th-century life (although some of the costuming decisions leave the parliamentary soldiers looking as if they were wearing giant Christmas bows and Alec Guinness’ waspish King Charles I appearing, on occasion, as if he were channeling Oscar Wilde).
In the face of such entertainment value, how important is it to quibble about the relationship between a movie and the historical events to which it refers? In the case of Hughes’ vision of the British past, it’s very important indeed. First, Hughes does not simply squeeze history into the confines of a movie, amalgamating characters and speeding up the action (who, after all, would miss one inconclusive battle more or less?). He totally reinvents both Cromwell and the British Civil Wars of 1638-1661 and ascribes to them an almost holy significance in the genealogy of representative democracy. Second, as the current brouhaha about General Wesley Clark’s candidacy as a U.S. Presidential hopeful indicates, the ideal of the citizen-soldier as a kind of uber-politician is a particularly persistent one, and Hughes’ 33-year-old machinations with Cromwell offer an instructive context for electoral maneuvering in the U.S. today.
From the opening scenes, Hughes hits the hagiography trail. Far more significant than the errors about chronology and battles (and the fact that Hughes loses one whole war altogether) is the way he frames Cromwell as the archetypal reluctant rebel, driven to action only to protect the common people and their religion from aristocratic and royal persecution. Cromwell was a reluctant rebel but, like many of his contemporaries, he was much more interested in preserving the economic and political power of his class than in sharing it with what he came to view as a fearsome common rabble.
Hughes bolsters this image of Cromwell as disinterested democrat by threading through the film an imaginary debate between the soldier and politician: Henry Ireton (Michael Jayston), transformed into a crypto-Leninist dreaming of dictatorial power, and Cromwell, who preaches to the common people (one hears a lot about the “common people” in this film, but one doesn’t see very much of them, an elision 17th-century “democrats” would have found wholly appropriate). In reality, Cromwell and Ireton shared the same views, and both would have contemplated with horror the democracy of the common people Hughes’ Cromwell proposes.
Hughes also spins from thin air a dazzling pre-war parliamentary career for Cromwell: in fact, Cromwell was a lowly MP who gained political power as a result of his genius as a battlefield commander in the 1640s, years after the passionate, intellectual struggles in Westminster which precipitated the civil wars. In a particularly pernicious historical invention, he conjures for Cromwell a Cincinnatus-like withdrawal to bucolic rural bliss after the execution of Charles in 1649. Instead, Cromwell spent the years 1649-51 enthusiastically bloodletting across the three kingdoms of Britain. He suppressed the royalist rebellion in Ireland with the barbarity that ensured his name is still hated there today, defeated an unholy alliance of renegade Scots Presbyterians and royalists under Charles II, and created in Scotland a military government that would have been the envy of any absolutist monarch.
Finally, Hughes sends Cromwell into the Palace of Westminster to dissolve Parliament in 1653 and assume power as a man sickened by political lethargy and the abuse of the little people. In fact, so successfully had Cromwell and his military colleagues defeated the Parliament’s enemies that peace confronted them with their own obsolescence. As he marched into parliament as the head of the largest standing army Britain had ever seen, Cromwell resembled Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon a lot more than he did the Cincinnatus reluctantly abandoning his plowshare Hughes wants us to see.
Such ruthless fantasizing turns a run of the mill historical epic into a powerful political interpretation and representation of the citizen-general, bestowing on that category of politician an unchallenged passion for democratic rights. In 1970, when the film was released at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the idea that a military officer might once again occupy the White House must have seemed absurd (and dangerous). But Hughes’ portrait of Cromwell allows him to recast the military, particularly its leaders, as betrayed by politicians of all stripes (in the movie, these politicians take the form of the Long Parliament and the King), while they struggle only to preserve the rights of ordinary citizens. This elevation of Cromwell to the pantheon of citizen-soldier-democrats also permits Hughes to frame Cromwell further as a proto-American democrat (he opens the movie with Cromwell and his family packed and ready to emigrate to America, after all), whose revolutionary legacy gifted Britain a balmy period of peace, political equality and greatness, and inspired the American Revolution.
But although this interpretation of Cromwell is wholly invented, the number of history teachers posting enthusiastic reviews of this movie on sites like amazon.com and Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) suggests that Hughes’ fantasy of Cromwell is alive, well, and ideologically active (maybe even in the classroom). Add that to the popular disillusion with the cost of the-war-after-the-war in Iraq and the propensity to blame a hectoring administration which was dishonest about its motives for invasion for the debacle, and the urge to look beyond the traditional political classes for 21st century leadership may prove compelling. In a nation where a World War II general served two Presidential terms less than fifty years ago, where messianic media speculation attended the potential U.S. Presidential candidacy of General Colin Powell, and the real candidacy of “war hero” John McCain, and has now resurged to envelop Wesley Clark, the reinforcement of the image of the citizen-soldier-democrat as a purer and more altruistic politician (even when it shows up in a 30-year-old movie like Cromwell) is a powerful political act.
The susceptibility of contemporary America to this image undoubtedly comes from its persistent rewriting of its own revolution (in which an aristocratic oligarchy successfully paid lip service to the rights of all in return for the concentration of national power in the hands of the few, and managed to spin George Washington’s return to his slave-run plantation into a resumption of life as a simple farmer) as a triumph for the “ordinary” American. In light of this, and given the current situation in Iraq, Hughes’ willful remaking of the civil wars and revolutions in 17th-century Britain is a far more potent obfuscator of rational political debate today than it was in 1970.