Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I suppose history teachers trying to make the English succession make sense to students might
go for Cromwell, but even with its large scale battle scenes and good acting on the
part of Alec Guinness, it never really comes to life. Writer director Ken Hughes must shoulder
the blame for this, as his script is one expository scene or strident lecture after another.
By all rights Oliver Cromwell was a difficult man to warm up to, but this movie version makes us
tire of him very quickly.
The Tyranny of King Charles I (Alec Guinness) has lord Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris)
set to emigrate to the Americas. But Charles reinstates Parliament, simply to charge it with raising
funds and an army. Incensed at Charles' Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria (Dorothy Tutin),
Puritan Cromwell leads Parliament to demand concessions for the body's cooperation. When the King tries
to dissolve Parliament again, Cromwell initiates a civil war. At first losing, thanks to the limp
leadership of The Earl of Manchester and The Earl of Essex (Robert Morley and Charles Gray), Cromwell's
Roundheads eventually succeed under his leadership, and arrest the King. Parliament waffles
on the issues when the King refuses to accede to any demands, and Cromwell has to badger them into
issuing a warrant of death. Charles is beheaded, and Parliament rules without a king even though
it tries to elevate Cromwell to the post. Several years later, furious at Parliament's pillaging of
the country and the lack of open elections, Cromwell himself dissolves Parliament and
becomes Lord Protector of England.
This must have been the payoff project for Ken Hughes' bloated and cheerless musical Chitty Chitty
Bang Bang. Cromwell is a sprawling epic that stays fairly faithful to
the facts, but it's not much fun to watch. Some of the supporting characters are engaging
but all we really have to hang onto is Alec Guinness'es competent King. Even Sir Alec is required
to mouth dry dialog that just keeps things moving; this is one of those historical movies where
almost every single scene is interrupted by an incoming message or arrival that lets us know that
some battle has been lost or some patriot killed.
The proceedings still need a history teacher to help us unlearned souls keep up. Cromwell's troops
are called Roundheads, but I forget why and there's no explanation of it here. According to other
historical films (and the horror film Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General) Cromwell's
civil war unleashed unholy anarchy and great suffering for a period of years upon the people of
England. The split appears to be as much over the issue of Protestant/Catholic rivalry as it
is a contest of whether state power should be in the hands of a monarch or an elected body.
Richard Harris' Cromwell is a pretty insufferable guy, a Puritan who wants to drive every Catholic
into the sea, especially in Ireland. Hughes' cyclical script only gives him 2 or three modes of behavior.
He sulks in seclusion, brooding over the evil of the King and stupidity of Parliament. Then, he'll
make stirring speeches before Parliament for whatever he sees needs to be done. Parliament always
follows him. Then he goes away, and the sneering snots on the Noble side of the house screw things
up with corruption or bad war policy. Then he comes back and yells some more. He yells at his
soldiers, his friends - nobody's good enough for him and his God. He has some potentially decent
dealings with the King, but as there was never any hope for reconciliation, he gets Parliament to
condemn the old man. Even then, nobody save Oliver has the guts to follow through on their convictions.
Finally, it's by dint of his power over the Army that Cromwell simply seizes the government for
himself. It's shown as a necessary act, as if the self-appointed God-fearing reformer had no choice
but to take the reins. A final-curtain voiceover tells us that Cromwell set up the existing
figurehead monarchy in England, and we're supposed to be pleased.
Hughes' script is too shallow to give us any insights into the religious warring or whether Cromwell
was a saint or an opportunist; Richard Harris has only his one expression of surly hostility, so
we don't find anything there. Moving from absolute monarchy to democracy isn't easy, but the only
lesson taught by Cromwell is that a benevolent Fuhrer like Cromwell might be the answer.
A lot of actors are hidden by beards and underwritten parts. Patrick's Magee and Wymark are
good, and we always enjoy seeing Frank Finlay even if he does get hung from a rope. Nigel Stock is
a king's aide who constantly gives info to the other side, yet the story doesn't explore his role
as a turncoat. Favorite Michael Jayston (Nicholas and Alexandra, Zulu Dawn) is a decent
fellow who follows Cromwell around like a dog. Dorothy Tutin plays the King's Catholic bride like a Borgia,
trying to slip in the religious issue at all times. Robert Morley is an obvious jerk, and mostly
wasted. Blink any you'll miss a rare appearance from Anthony May (No Blade of Grass) as Cromwell's
surviving son. Finally, there's future 007 Timothy Dalton as a royal nephew who enlivens the battles
with spirit and arrogance, until he starts losing . At least his character has a curve to
The battle scenes are large and dull, even if fairly accurate. We see one Cromwell victory, preceded
by a very Spartacus training scene. This is the kind of show where a general announces he's
going to go out and raise an army, and we dissolve to a battle enjoined by new uniformed and
supplied legions. Cromwell easily fools Dalton's cavalry into charging, and we do get some okay
tactics for a few minutes. But the bulk of the fighting stays remote and uninvolving.
This was not a hit in 1970, far from it. Save for the next year's Young Winston, it might
be the last gasp of epic English filmmaking until 1979's Zulu Dawn. Technically, that was probably
a South African film.
Script consultant Robert Harwood (his name misspelled on the disc package credits) has an admirable
filmography and may have had a lot to do with the story. Director Hughes' heyday was back a few
years earlier when he did snappy thrillers and television crime stories.
Columbia's DVD of Cromwell is a beauty, finally making this longish epic watchable in a
handsome letterboxed image. Colors are fine, with Geoffrey Unsworth's dark photography and the
very nicely executed costumes making maximum impact. It's mixed in Dolby Surround, and has some
trailers as the only extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 8, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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