Winstanley (1975)

 

 

Director:  Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo

Starring:  Miles Halliwell (Gerrard Winstanley), Jerome Willis (General Lord Fairfax), Terry Higgins (Tom Haydon), Phil Oliver (Will Everard), David Bramley (Parson Platt), Alison Halliwell (Mrs. Platt), Dawson France (Capt. Gladman), Bill Petch (Henry Bickerstaffe), Barry Shaw (Colonel Rich), Sid Rawle (Ranter), George Hawkins (Coulton), Stanley Reed (Recorder), Philip Stearns (Drake), Flora Skrine (Mrs. Drake).

based on a book by David Caute entitled "Comrade Jacob"

The film is in quasi-documentary form.  Gerrard Winstanley leads the religious sect the Diggers to claim land for the poor. 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

1646.  The battle of King vs. Parliament.  With its New Model Army under Cromwell, Parliament wins.  No reforms, however, have been brought.  Only those with property can vote.  The Levellers demand equal voting rights for all (except servants and beggars).  The army votes for the Levellers, who challenge their commanders with a radical pamphlet.  Rebellion spreads in the ranks.  After a field court martial, Private Arnold is selected by lot and is executed.  A second Civil War started by King Charles ends all hope of a Leveller victory.  When it is over, the King is executed and the army disbanded.

St. George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey.  April 1, 1649.  John Platt is the lord of the manor and the local clergyman.  He is upset with his wife Margaret because she is reading The New Law of Righteousness by the radical Winstanley.  Winstanley and his Levellers are busy digging up George's Hill to plant crops.  The man believes that the land is a common treasury for all and is trying to establish a communist colony on the hill on common ground where everyone can graze their cattle. 

John Platt talks with Winstanley.  He does not like the radical.  John claims that Winstanley has taken ten of his workers from him to be a part of the colony.  It is true that many terribly poor people drift into the Leveler colony. 

Margaret Platt gives Winstanley a ride in her carriage.  She tells him that she wants a favor from him.  She wants to join his "flock".  Margaret is even willing to work in the fields along with the Diggers. 

A group of Levellers are attacked and beaten by the local farmers who feel threatened by the new colony.  The land actually belongs to Francis Drake, Esquire but the local can graze their cattle there and they don't the Levellers grabbing some of the common land. The Levellers are charged with trespassing, but the Justice of the Peace lets them go because of the way they were treated (attacked and beaten). 

Winstanley has to report into the Council of State.  The judge tells him that his group must disperse and admonishes Winstanley to preserve the peace.  The peace, however, is broken by the locals who launch another attack.  This time they destroy the colony shacks.  Winstanley is told that if he continues with the settlement, legal action will be taken against him.

The locals pull up the crops growing in the Leveller fields.  A large group of soldiers accompanied by John Platt arrives, but they take no action against the Levellers.  A third attack on the Leveller settlement occurs.  Some of the soldiers are involved in the attack.  This time the damage to the colony is even worse.  Mrs. Platt,who just recently gave birth to a baby boy, walks up the hill to the colony.  She is shocked at what she sees and quickly walks back down the hill.  At home she calls her husband "murderer". 

Winstanley goes to see General Lord Fairfax who has so far been fairly reasonable toward the Levellers.  The Digger leader asks that the soldiers not be allowed to attack the colony.  Fairfax gives his word that the soldiers will not attack the colony again.  Mrs. Platt gives Winstanley some money. 

Winstanley is called to court for trespassing.  The judge tells the Levellers that he will not hear their case without a lawyer.  The Levellers protest:  "With what funds should we have to pay for a lawyer".  The cows of the Levellers are taken to pay for damages.  News from the other Digger settlements arrives.  The fire has spread, which encourages the Winstanley group.  Mrs. Platt comes again to the colony.  She says she has run away.  Soon, however, Mrs. Platt has a change of tune.  She even apologizes to her husband for the way she has acted.

The colonizers are going to use force to get some food.  Winstanley protests against this move, but they tell him that they refuse to starve.  They get locked up by the authorities. 

A large band of soldiers along with Mr. Platt approaches the colony.  The colonizers are warned and they run away.  The soldiers burn the houses.  In the village, Platt is a hero for what he did. It's over for Winstanley.  He says "and here I end".  He admits defeat but is satisfied with his attempt to create a better way of life for the poor.  He has written and acted and he says he has peace in his heart.  At another time and place someone else will take up the battle again. 

 

The movie has a weird feel to it.   The film is in black and white and is successful in presenting just how miserable are the poor in England.  The Levellers are dirty.  Their clothes are ripped and dirty.  Their "colony" is little more than some mud and stick shacks with no windows.  Much of the crops they grow are pulled up by the locals.  What's worse is that the Leveller colony is attacked repeatedly, the shacks are damaged or completely destroyed and the colonizers are beaten.  The colonizers are also subject to being arrested for trespassing.  For Winstanley it is just one setback after another.   It's one assault after another on his little colony.  Throughout the entire movie there is a feeling of foreboding that absolute disaster will descend on the colony.  One really feels for the poor who are desperately trying to create a better life for themselves and their families.  No one offers an alternative to help the poor.  They just continue assaulting the poor using various methods.   To me the movie was a bit upsetting and discouraging given the terrible things that happened to the poor in the movie. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

Gerrard Winstanley   --  English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during the English Revolution led by Oliver Cromwell.  Winstanley was aligned with the True Levellers (based upon Christian communism) and the Diggers (which took over public lands and planted crops on them).

 

1609  --  birth of Gerrard Winstanley in Wigan, Lancashire, England, the son of a grocer.   

As a young man he moved to London.  Here he became an apprentice and then a member of the tailors' guild.

The English Civil. War disrupted his business and he had to move back to the Wigan area. 

The civil war involved more parties than just those who supported the monarchy and the Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell. 

3)  the Fifth Monarchy Men  --  wanted to establish a heavenly theocracy on earth;

4)  the Agitators (or "Levellers")  --  believed in greater equality among men; (they were led by Freeborn John Lilburne); 

5)  the Christian communists (the Diggers)  --  called the True Levellers and led by Gerrard Winstanley, they believed in levelling the ownership of private property.

Gerrard Winstanley published a tract called The New Law of Righteousness.   He got his authority from the Bible.  His thought, however, was part of ancient English radical thought going back to the days of the Peasants' Revolt (1381) led by Wat Tyler. 

1649  --  Winstanley and his followers took over vacant or common lands in Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent and Northamptonshire. 

1649 (July)  --  the government ordered the arrest of Winstanley and told General Thomas Fairfax to disperse the Diggers by force.  

1650  --  local landowners also responded with force, hiring thugs to beat up the Diggers. 

Without any protection from the government, Winstanley had to abandon his colony. 

1652  --  he published The New Law of Freedom, which said that property and wages should be abolished. He also criticized the government of Oliver Cromwell. 

1660  --  Winstanley moved to Cobham and there became a Quaker.  He later worked as a cloth merchant in London.

1676 (September)  -- death of Winstanley.

 

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