Someone somewhere at the BFI deserves an award or at least a hearty congratulation of some kind for their constant unearthing and reissuing of lost British classics. And if ever a film was deserving of such a title, Comrades is surely it. The epic, unabridged tale of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (and in particular George Loveless), the circumstances that led to their transportation, and thus the beginnings of trade unionism as we know it, yet told through the eyes of someone more in love with the style of Bunuel, Melies, Starewicz, Painleve and even Murnau than any director associated with ‘social realism’ or ‘documentary filmmaking’, Bill Douglas’ fourth (and final) feature film is a rare and unusual beast indeed. Obvious parallels have been drawn with Eisenstein’s Strike, but whereas the Russian’s work was very much a product of the political upheavals in his own country Douglas presents the story from a humanist point of view, no agenda implied. He may have nursed a deep disdain for capitalism, (and what independent director wouldn’t?) but, as his notes point out, he deliberately set out to avoid making anything that could be construed as a history lesson. The film’s subtitle- “ Being A Lanternist’s Account Of The Tolpuddle Martyrs And What Became Of Them” sets out it’s maker’s primary consideration, and even the crumbled, slightly chalky font that presents to us the film’s main title suggests that we are about to watch something covert, forbidden, clandestine and unusual- almost as if he secretly knew this would be a ‘cult’ film in the truest sense. Did he plan it that way? Maybe.
On balance, the idea of watching a three-hour movie about six working men and their families living in utter poverty in 19th century rural Dorset doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. If pressed, most of us would rather cram a Bond and a Hammer in during that time period, or in my case, probably choose to watch my own personal favourite, Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class. But we’d be missing out, because the Scottish director’s telling of this story, or rather painting of this picture (as a lover of silent cinema and pre-cinema, he was always concerned with visual rather than dialogue-driven work) is one of the most extraordinary artistic achievements in the history of British film.
The fact that it exists at all is a miracle in itself. Written in 1979 (after a chance discovery in a Bournemouth bookshop of a leaflet on the Martyrs, whom Douglas had never previously heard of) and subjected to several false starts (one at the hands of the execrable Ismail Merchant), rewrites and setbacks before filming eventually commenced in 1985, this was exactly the sort of film that the establishment, particularly right in the middle of the worst excesses of Thatcherite Britain, did not want audiences to see, or at least did not think directors should be making. Ironic really, when you consider that its subject matter concerns the suppression of education within the working classes by the rich. Let’s be honest, the British film industry by the mid-80s was at its lowest ebb: the Eady levy had long gone, and unless you were George Harrison or Dennis O’Brien (or indeed linked somehow to the aforementioned Merchant-Ivory organisation), you stood very little chance of getting anything made. Ken Loach was dividing his time between shooting in Germany and making documentaries, Mike Leigh was still tied to television, and wouldn’t make his entry into feature films with High Hopes (starring Philip Davis, who would first come to be noticed in Comrades) and Ken Russell had buggered off to the US to make Alterd States and Crimes Of Passion, while most of the country’s other greats such as Boorman, Schlesinger and Roeg had been either resident or semi-resident over there for years. Faced with the alternative, I can’t say I blame any of them.
Later studies have revealed an industrious undercurrent of horror, science fiction and sexploitation filmmakers still beavering away, determined to ply their wares via any means necessary throughout Maggie’s Grey Decade- which is laudable and commendable behaviour, but was never going to be of any interest to an iconoclast like Douglas, whose work, like that of Allan Clarke, Ian Breakwell, Chris Petit, Barney Platts Mills and Terence Davies, is only just beginning to be recognised for its importance. I must admit to being ignorant of much of it myself until quite recently, which is symptomatic of the way Comrades, like much of his ouvre, has been buried by film historians, TV broadcasting planners and distributors. Not that anyone would suggest some kind of conspiracy afoot. Or would they? Watching the film itself opens up the mind to all sorts of new possibilities regarding cultures of suppression and disinformation.
Thankfully, this is no longer an issue, as the BFI have once again done a sterling job and made this available to all those who wish to savour its rich tapestry of delights (or rather, those who have a spare £22.99 on them) Once again, as is the case with most ‘arthouse’ DVDs, the RRP will be a bone of contention, furthering the conception in the eyes of many that such releases are tailored to a middle-class elitist group who can afford them, and as such are therefore only preaching to the choir. There is a hint of truth in that statement, although you and I may also know that the acquisition of rights, along with the restoration of materials and the employment of those who contribute to the overall package, do not come cheap. When putting together a disc, unless you are an EXTREME bargain-bin merchant, costs have to be outlaid and recouped, and this is a task the BFI have to undertake as rigorously as anyone else. Fair enough. But unfortunately, this means at least 25 percent of the film’s prospective audience won’t get to see it except via ‘unorthodox’ means.
Some may assume that anyone capable of appreciating such work must be of above average intelligence and therefore possibly quite well off. Sadly, this doesn’t alter the fact that many people of an artistic bent are very poor, largely because their intellectual leanings, coupled with an ability to analyse the world, lead them into depression, isolation and unemployability (different from unemployment). Douglas, a man from one of the most poverty-stricken backgrounds Eastern Scotland had ever seen, saw this, and chronicled it in the autobiographical Trilogy made between 1972 and 1978 for which he is best known. He also saw it in the character of George Loveless (Robin Soans), with whom we all to a certain extent identify. Faced with the prospect of wages (doled out here weekly by a compassionless, almost dictatorial Murray Melvin) that decrease steadily in size, and already nursing a burning ambition (partially realised via a series of secular ‘sermons’ he conducts in the houses of his neighbours) to educate his own class, alert them to the ways of the world, and altruistically help people to overcome adversity, he one day asks five of his friends “What if we all complained, what if we all disagreed with these wage cuts”? and thus the Society Of Friends, as he refers to it, is born.
This is a groundbreaking step, in that not only is it the first attempt by working men at airing their grievances articulately, but they are also brave enough to go to the residence of their employer (Mr Frampton, played here by a bristling, incredulous Robert Stephens at the peak of his craft) and demand he explain the wage cuts to them. For this ‘seditionary’ and ‘insubordinate’ behaviour, they are subsequently transported to Australia, which rather than the land of freedom, is actually the world’s biggest open prison, lorded over by self-appointed despots who spend their time either beating the men into submission when the lack of footwear gives them sunstroke or being sucked off by dogs in wooden huts. This will prove their undoing- a consequence of which is more punishment for the supposed ‘insurrectionists’. Eventually, after much campaigning, they are returned home and given a hero’s welcome in the local village hall, at which point it is revealed that the previous 175 minutes’ events have been portrayed onstage by the travelling lanternist first glimpsed in the opening frames “as if he had actually been there” It is through his eyes we are supposed to glimpse the story: actor Alex Norton plays not only the said trickster but (among others) a fairground daguerreotype-barker, a white-faced aristocrat, a bedraggled tramp to whom the workers’ only ally among the elite, Mr Pitt (Michael Hordern) imparts important information, a ranting Italian photographer trying to capture images of Aboriginal men in the bush, and the despotic chain-gang supervisor, hinting to us that the lanternist’s presence is found at all different stages of the story.
Such a ‘conceit’ (a term I loathe as it is appallingly redolent of pretentious cinemaspeak, a conceit in itself, and the overall approach of this film) marks Douglas out as someone way beyond and outside the usual conventions of historical film-making. True, the subject matter is typical of the inward-looking conventions of British cinema at the time (something which critics were quick to rightfully point out would never ensure Transatlantic appeal, as further demonstrated by the spectacular failure of Bert Rigby You’re A Fool, Carl Reiner’s 1989 vehicle for Robert Lindsay, which ultimately derailed the actor’s Hollywood career and sent him back home to the sitcoms), an indulgence which many Scottish films, such as the aforementioned Trilogy, have been guilty of, but even so, this is the work of a director refusing to be bound by such orthodoxies or conventions. The most obvious influence displayed throughout is that of his primary obsession, the literal ‘magic’ (ie trickery) of pre-cinema, hence the inclusion of someone as otherworldly as an itinerant lanternist in such a bleak landscape. In the first five minutes, Norton knocks on Stephens’ door to ask if he may perform for his family: as the maid walks, candle in hand, across the vast mansion to be told the presumably negative answer, each window illuminates and offers up silhouettes like a shadowplay.
This theme recurs time and again, as children in the fields are handed and enthralled by twirling plumbobs with moving images of horses, eyes appear to peep from behind paintings in the manner of an ‘old dark house’ movie, a teenage white boy also recently transported is transformed for no apparent reason whatsoever into a beturbanned blackamoor, a returning sailor from the village (noted ballet dancer Michael Clark) dances for an ecstatic audience atop a makeshift stage surrounded by paraphernalia of salacious illusion, and the skeleton Loveless (himself enthralled by the ‘new magic’) uses as the trademark of the Society, emblazoned with the legend ‘Remember Thine End’ begins to almost take on a life of its own . Even the most harrowing scenes have an air of fantastic magic about them: the scene where Soans attempts to kill the cockroaches that run across his family’s feet at night with a flaming torch seems almost like something from an animated film, the actor’s movements dance-like, the revolting little creatures almost singing as they scuttle. Female characters, rather than resembling the downtrodden drudges so often presented in costume drama of the period, are by turns both beautiful and ugly within the same two-minute scene, always supportive, articulate and strong in spirit.
Later, journeys across vast oceans are represented not by any vast photography but by a slow, almost Greenaway-like pan across a drawn book or map. This was admittedly the result of further budgetary constraints, and Douglas had originally wanted the panorama to be represented by stretching the screen out into Cinemascope: why they refused him this small favour is unknown, and with hindsight makes little sense, but on reflection the artificiality of the material used actually works in the film’s favour, pushing it yet further from the dullness of ‘gritty’ filmmaking and into the cinemafantastique world its creator not only loved, but saw as a release from the rigmarole and pressure heaped upon him by an industry that refused to understand. Similarly, his use of relatively unknown actors to play the major roles (“It would be hopeless to Robert Redford playing Loveless”, he mused in his notes, “everyone would just see Robert Redford, and never go beyond that to the character”), thus representing “the people” and known performers (Stephens, Hordern, Melvin, Joanna David, Freddie Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, James Fox, even Barbara Windsor) to play the ruling classes, all of whom at best skirt around the peripheries of the plot, is a total subversion of what audiences had come to expect from film.
It is interesting to note that the Scotsman had originally wanted actual, nonprofessional residents of Dorset to play those roles, in the same way as he had used actual Lothian and Egyptian people, who went by names such as ‘Archie’ ‘Radir’ and ‘Mr Munro’ in My Ain Folk and My Way Home, but Equity disagreements forbade it: eventually, locals were used as extras (something Equity would also be up in arms about these days, bless them) but conversely, the actors cast all rose to greater prominence through their association. It practically made Imelda Staunton, here seen in the role of Loveless’ supportive wife Betsy: she has rarely been off our screens since, and raised the profile of Phil Davis (who at time of writing has six films either recently completed or in post-production) although he had been working regularly since the 1970S. Norton, of course, is still very visible in Taggart, and Keith Allen as ubiquitous as ever, although whether either should be considered a good thing is a moot point. Let’s just say that in the role of James Hammett, he delivers the only performance I’ve ever seen which doesn’t make you want to slap him, and in fact is responsible for some of the film’s most powerful moments, particularly when conversing with a young boy about keeping out of trouble, and, upon subsequently landing in it himself, repeatedly insisting, when asked his name by his captors, that he be referred to as ‘Adam Freeman’- the first man, without bonds. Sadly the years of bellowing at people about vindaloo, cheddar cheese and all sorts of football-related nonsense, to say nothing of ruining an otherwise perfect New Order concert I once attended, were not far off.
Because of its fantastical leanings, given ultimate expression during a sequence where an illusory skeleton is projected for the newly-founded community of transportees during a performance at a makeshift outdoor theatre, Comrades may be easier to digest than other films of similar origin: on the other hand, some may find the lack of conventional dialogue in its early stages off-putting. This can be, and has been, misread as typical of the ‘slowness’ of art cinema, but in fact is nothing of the sort- as in his earlier works, Douglas is utilising the space between spoken voices and events, and the use of quiet, as an homage to his love of silent cinema and its power. To a dialogue fan such as myself, this can sometimes be disconcerting, but woven inbetween spoken sequences of such perfection as the courtroom scene, where Jones and Hordern amusingly attempt (albeit unsuccessfully) to destroy Stephens’ ignoble protestations with a fecund wit rarely displayed in ‘serious’ productions such as this, it makes total sense.
Joining all these threads together, from the opening shots of Luddite machine destruction (Ludd himself is woven into the plot later, but more as a display of artistic licence than slavish adherence to fact, which is of course not what the film is about) to the final sepia-tinted images of the cast, is the score, chilling in places and warm in others. Again, Douglas avoids the potential for cliché inherent in such material by using either the sparse and effective sounds of Hans Werner Henze or traditional folksong collated at the time from a variety of sources. Sometimes the mind boggles at the very expanse of the project and how anyone kept it all together: with a filmmaker of such singular vision, who knew exactly what he wanted and how to find it, even to the point of halting the shoot several times because it began to rain in Australia, thus disrupting the film that already existed in his head, producer Simon Relph had his work cut out on several occasions, and should be applauded for managing to bring everything in only slightly over budget while still maintaining some direct link with the artistic premise involved, whilst photographer Gale Tattersall and art director Henry Harris seem to have captured perfectly the balance between magic and mundanity necessary to realise it.
After watching the full ‘megillah’ the viewer may feel an almost emotional, affirmative sense of accomplishment not dissimilar to that which Douglas presumably felt on completion of shooting: not all films of such length make such an impact. Sadly, the effects were largely wasted on both the British public, who stayed away in droves at the time, leading to it being pulled from cinema screens six weeks after release, and many critics such as Barry ‘And Why Not’ Norman, who, as those involved have pointed out since, seemed to have decided from the outset that he wasn’t going to like it and felt duty bound to prove himself right. Similarly, its later screenings on Channel 4 were few and far between, although at least they were presented uncut and unmeddled with in a way that cinema distributors could not countenance back in 1987, much to the director’s further annoyance. Like many films now considered ‘lost classics’ the world simply wasn’t ready for Comrades, nor for Douglas himself: although only just beginning to hit his stride, further funding proved even harder to come by, and despite collaborating with his students at Strathclyde University during his fellowship from 1989 to 1990 on several ideas, he was never able to complete another film during his life, which was curtailed by cancer in 1991.
Eighteen years on from his death we can now see Comrades for the masterwork that it is. It may not be the type of film I would usually wax lyrical about, but, with his direct lineage back to Dreyer and Melies, and his collection of bizarre, sometimes grotesque pre-cinema antiquities, many of which are displayed in the 1970s documentary found on Disc 2, Bill Douglas is not that many steps away from the world of horror and fantasy: indeed, as an actor he appeared in the highly underrated British horror film Sleepwalker (Saxon Logan 1984) delivering a performance worthy of the attentions of any discerning genre fan, and discerning film fans of all kinds should find something to savour here. Restored in its original ratio, clear enough for all-round enjoyment but still slightly grainy and diffuse enough to retain its arthouse credentials, it looks, one would imagine, every inch the way its creator intended it to look. The second disc contains enough material to overload and melt the viewer’s brain (or at least that’s how I felt by the end, but that’s what staying indoors watching and writing about this stuff for a living can do to you), the previously-discussed 1979 documentary of particular interest to those wishing for an insight into Bill’s life.
It’s notable that by the time he began his Trilogy in 1972, he had, like anyone of an artistic disposition with common-sense, long departed Scotland and relocated to London and Southampton, fuelling further accusations from small-minded provincial critics of being a camp, decadent, foppish traitor who ‘insulted his own people’ with his work. It’s also just as notable that over 30 years on, nobody can remember those peoples’ names but anyone with more than a passing interest in British cinema knows the name Bill Douglas, even if Comrades itself has passed into obscurity. Further fascination is to be found in the shape of Home And Away, a 30-minute film from 1974 scripted by the man himself and directed by Michael Alexander, once again relating in a semi autobiographical fashion the tale of a young boy at a Scots boarding school coping with his parents’ divorce. Shot with that strange, almost accidental colour scheme that only British productions made between 1967 and 1982 seem to have, it still manages to hold the viewer’s attention despite its open-ended plot structure and the poor sound quality of the source material.
The on-set report by a local Dorset news station from 1985 is almost humorous in tone, its shots of ‘half barns’ reminding us that underneath what some may perceive as the seriousness of such films there was still fun to be had, whilst the newly-shot, hour-long Lanterna Magicka, which reunites practically every living person who ever worked with the man and also describes in detail his massive posthumous bequest to the University Of Exeter (near to Barnstaple, his home at the time of his death) fills in all the missing parts without ever condescending to its audience in the way sadly typical of much documentary footage. If there was anything about Douglas you didn’t already know, such as why, against the entreaties of everyone else, he insisted on the casting of Barbara Windsor, then you will do by the time you’ve seen it.
Although not a Flipside release, Comrades could easily be mistaken for one, and definitely befits such an accolade, as it is a truly unusual, uncompromising and unorthodox British film, still largely unknown even to buffs and collectors (although that is slowly changing), devoid of any of the shackles which tied down many of its contemporaries, and as demanding of repeated viewing as others of a similar length, from its British peers such as O Lucky Man, Herostratus (soon also to be seen again on BFI DVD) and the aforementioned Ruling Class through European entries like Werckmeister Harmonies and Fitzcarraldo to worldwide horror, scifi and exploitation marvels including Kwaidan, Solaris and Thundercrack. Yes, as I said earlier, someone, somewhere definitely deserves congratulating.