Witchfinder General (aka Conqueror Worm) (1968)

 

 

 

Director:     Michael Reeves.

Starring:     Vincent Price (Matthew Hopkins),  Ian Ogilvy (Richard Marshall),  Rupert Davies (John Lowes),  Hilary Heath (Sarah Lowes),  Robert Russell (John Stearne),  Nicky Henson (Trooper Robert Swallow),  Tony Selby (Tom Salter),  Bernard Kay (Fisherman),  Godfrey James (Webb),  Michael Beint (Captain Gordon),  John Trenaman (Trooper Harcourt),  Bill Maxwell (Trooper Gifford),  Paul Ferris (Paul Clark),  Maggie Kimberly (Elizabeth Clark).

 Matthew Hopkins tours the land searching for and finding witches

 

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

People are pulling a poor woman who is tied up down a street to the gallows. A minister reads from the Bible. They hang the screaming woman.

"The year is 1645. England is in the grip of bloody civil war. On the one side stand the Royalist party of King Charles, on the other, Cromwell’s Parliamentary party, the Roundheads. The structure of law and order has collapsed. Local magistrates indulge their individual whims, justice and injustice are dispensed in more or less equal quantities and without opposition, an atmosphere in which the unscrupulous revel and the likes of Matthew Hopkins take full advantage of the situation. In a time where the superstitions of country folk are still a powerful factor, Hopkins preys upon them, torturing and killing in a supposed drive to eliminate witchcraft from the country and doing so with the full blessing of what law there is. However, his influence is confined largely to the eastern sector of the country, East Anglia, which is held firmly in Cromwell’s grasp, but not so firmly that the Roundhead cavalry patrols have everything their own way, for there still exists an ever-present threat from the remnants of the Royalist armies, desperately foraging for food, horses and supplies."

A Roundhead cavalry troop stops for a short rest. One of their troopers is hit by fire from royalist snipers. Captain Gordon leaves trooper Richard Marshall behind and with the rest of the men chases after the snipers. They get one of the snipers, but the other gets away.

The man who got away gets ready to kill the Captain, but Richard spots him and kills him with his pistol. The Captain is very grateful to Richard, so Richard gets two days of leave to go see his girlfriend Sara. Her uncle the Reverend tells Richard that trouble is coming to Suffolk and he wants Sara far away when it does. If Richard will take her away now tonight, he shall have the Reverend’s consent.  Sara comes in and the Reverend leaves. The couple kisses. Richard asks Sara why her uncle is so scared? Sara says because they have been called papists and idolaters, and the King’s creatures who should be pilloried or hanged. They are now outcasts in their own village. At night Sara and Richard go to bed and have sex (some brief nudity mostly in the dark).

Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne come riding into the area. They have work to do in Brandeston.

Richard says good-bye to the uncle and Sara. A number of townsmen wait on the road at night for the lawyer Hopkins. Richard passes by them. He also runs into Hopkins and Stearne.

In the morning, Hopkins, Stearne and the townsmen come to speak with John Lowes, the uncle of Sara. Stearne slaps around the man and then they strip him to look for the "Devil’s marks" on his body. Stearne keeps poking the poor man with a sharp instrument that causes the Reverend to bleed. If there is a Satan’s mark, when pricked the mark won’t bleed.

An old servant runs to tell Sara to hurry for they have come for her uncle. Hopkins sees the pretty Sara and looks intently at her through a window. Sara runs to the house and runs directly into Hopkins. She denies that she is the Reverend's niece. Sara tells him she is a foundling who is only a servant to the Reverend. Hopkins wants to speak with her in "private" in her room tonight. Sara knows what he wants. She asks that Hopkins release the Reverend now and he will well see tonight proof of his innocence. Hopkins says he will put the Reverend in jail so they will be rid of him for the night.

At night Stearne goes to Sara to question her. He tells Sara that the idolater must confess and die. Stearne will see to it. Sara begs that the priest not be harmed. Matthew asks would she dare protect a witch? Sara asks the witchfinder to grant her this and she opens her robe to him.

In the morning, Stearne is anxious to start torturing the priest, but Matthew tells him to leave the priest in the cell. Stearne figures that Matthew has gone soft over the girl. At night he decides to follow his employer. He sees him walk to Sara’s place and go inside. John gets a ladder to climb up to look into a second story window. He smiles at what he sees and then climbs down.

Stearne keeps laughing while slapping a woman shackled to a jail wall and shouting at her to confess. He has to stop for awhile because the witchfinder shows up. He tells Stearne that he assumes he is following the prescribed routine for questioning the prisoners and Stearne says yes. Hopkins says he is going to the next village, but will be back tomorrow.

Stearne goes to grab Sara. She starts to run but Stearne grabs her. He then starts to rape her. One of the townsmen, Salter, just laughs at the sight. When Hopkins returns the townsman tells him that Sara was with Stearne.

Hopkins tells Stearne he has changed his mind. They will confess the priest. Stearne slaps the priest again and again, but he won’t confess. So Hopkins tells Salter and another townsman that they both heard the priest confess. When Salter says he didn’t, Hopkins has Stearne threaten him into saying he did hear the man’s confession.

So now they take the priest and two women to be thrown into the moat. If they sink, they are innocent. If they float or swim, they are guilty and will be hanged. Sara cries and cries. They tie the people hand and feet and lower them into the moat. Hopkins concludes they swim, so they must hang. One of the women dies and Hopkins says she was innocent.

The two dead bodies are allowed to hang in public for awhile. Hopkins gets the money and he and his partner move on to the next village and their next victims.

Richard comes from a battle in Chertiton Woods to buy some horses for the army. Richard learns that in Brandeston they have hanged one priest and two women (sic). He says two other solders will arrive soon. He then sets off immediately for Brandeston. In Brandeston he yells out for Sara. He sees her in the church. She runs from him. He catches up with her and she faints. She tells him the witchfinder tricked her into having sex with him. She thought they would have pity, but she was wrong. Richard accompanied by Sara prays to the Lord. He swears he will find and capture the murderers.

Richard gives Sara his money and tells her to go to Lavenham. He will find her when he returns. Richard rides off on his horse. A shepherd he runs into says he has heard the witichfindersy are in Hoxne, four miles away. He rides to the tavern in Hoxne. There Stearne is drinking and flirting with the bar maid.  Richard meets Stearne and hits him with a bucket. The bar tender helps Stearne get away by knocking Richard over the head with a piece of wood. Stearne rides off. The bar tender tell Richard he is taking him to see the magistrate. Richard hits him in the stomach really hard and the guy keels over. Richard goes after Stearne.

Stearne runs into Hopkins and they hide in the woods. Hopkins convinces Stearne that they can claim Richard is a witch and see that he is the one who is killed. Richard reports back to his Captain, who is at Naseby readying for a big fight with the enemy. The punishment for desertion is death, but he goes easy on Richard because they need every able body and Richard saved his life.

Hopkins and Stearne run into Richard’s buddies out requisitioning horses. They take Stearne’s horse, but Hopkins makes a run for it. Hopkins gets away after shooting the horse of the man chasing him. But the soldiers do have Stearne and they are going to make him be a soldier. Stearne knocks them both down and runs for it. He is shot in the shoulder.  From his hiding place, with his knife Stearne kills the soldier who shot him. Stearne sits down and digs the bullet out of his shoulder, screaming as he goes along. When he awakens after a sleep he is furious with Hopkins. Hopkins goes to his next customer. He has come to Lavenham.

Cromwell discusses his great victory at Naseby with his staff. He is going to promote Cornet Marshall to Captain Marshall. He has a mission for him too. He is to take three men and ride back into East Anglia. The King has escaped them and it is said he heads for the Norfolk coast. If Marshall finds and catches him, he is to escort him to Norwich.

Stearne buys himself a horse and the seller tells him that Hopkins is in Lavenham.

Richard and his men talk to the boatman who took the King over to France. They are too late. But he does learn that Hopkins is in Lavenham. He takes off like a shot. His men follow him.

There is a big bon-fire at Lavenham. They have three women being prodded in a little fenced-in area. Elizabeth Clark is to be the first to be burned as a witch. She is tied to a ladder and the ladder is slowly lowered toward the fire. Her body is consumed by fire. Stearne arrives on horseback. There are two more witches to be burned.

Hopkins gets his blood money and Stearne then confronts him. The witchfinder pulls a pistol on him and tells him to be sensible or he will shoot him. Stearne chooses to be sensible. Hopkins brags that Parliament may make him the Witchfinder General for all of England.  And now the two men see Sara. Stearne wants to grab her, but Hopkins says that Richard will be around soon. They need to plan how they are going to capture and kill him.

Stearne goes around to the townspeople to see if anyone has seen Richard. Richard arrives to see Sara. Stearne runs back to tell Hopkins that Richard is with Sara. The husband of Elizabeth Clark is out for vengeance on the witchfinder.  Hopkins, Stearne and an accomplice capture Richard and Sara and accuse them of being witches. Mr. Clark tries to kill Hopkins, but Hopkins shoots him with his pistol. They take Richard and Sara to jail.

Richard’s three soldier friends are able to talk with Mr. Clark, who is still alive. One soldier stays behind to take Clark to a doctor, while the other two soldiers head for the jail. Stearne cuts Sara on her back several time and she screams bloody murder. They then tie her to a big table. Hopkins is going to brand her on her back with a hot iron unless Richard will confess.

The soldier buddies get past the guard. They kill the accomplice of Hopkins and Stearne. Stearne goes to release Richard. Somehow Richard gets his hands free. He knocks down Stearne with a kick to the chin and then kicks him in the left eye with the spur on his boot causing the man to scream in pain. Richard starts hacking up the witchfinder with an ax. The two soldiers arrive and see Richard hacking away at Hopkins. To put Hopkins out of his misery, one of the soldiers shoots Hopkins dead with his pistol. Richard is furious, saying they took the witchfinder away from him.

 

This is a classic vengeance film, but it's not all the satisfying   For 95% percent of the film, the witchfinders are spreading their wickedness around and the vengeance only comes at the end and is only about 5% percent of the movie time.  And the witchfinders are up to some pretty objectionable things and is a bit hard to watch.  Vincent Price was less the ham in this movie and more just the very bad man.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background: 

Matthew Hopkins was a witch hunter who worked his foul deeds during the time of the English Civil War.

c. 1620 – birth of Matthew Hopkins in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the son of James Hopkins, a Puritan clergyman. (Later he would claim to be the son of a nobleman.)

He was a shipping clerk.

1641-1651  --  the years of the English Civil War. 

1644 (March) – he began his witch finding career, he says, when he overheard several women discussing their meetings with the Devil in Manningtree (near Colchester) where he was living. John Stearne actually made the first accusations and Hopkins was only his assistant. The pair got nineteen "witches" hanged. (Four accused of witchcraft died in prison.)

Hopkins and Stearne started traveling all over eastern England, including the counties of Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk. They said they were officially commissioned by Parliament to discover and prosecute witches. (Apparently, Parliament knew about the team's activities.)

Torture was technically not lawful in England. But there are always ways around the law. He liked to use sleep deprivation and browbeating. He also used "witch prickers" who pricked the accused with sharp instruments looking for the Devil's mark (a mole, a boil or a birthmark) that was supposed to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed.  In addition, he used the "swimming" test.  If they sink when thrown into the water, they are innocent.  If they swim or float, they are witches. 

1647 – death of Matthew Hopkins.

 

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