Directed By: Ken Hughes
Starring: Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Robert Morley
Trivia: It was casting director Maude Spector that first suggested Timothy Dalton for the role of Prince Rupert
Everything I know about Oliver Cromwell, the 17th Century British Parliamentarian and military leader who helped overthrow a King, I learned from two sources: Monty Python’s satirical song, “Oliver Cromwell” (performed by John Cleese and released on the troupe’s 1991 album, Monty Python Sings); and Cromwell, Ken Hughes’ 1970 biopic (which, for a time there, ranked as one of my favorite historical dramas). Having just re-watched Cromwell for the first time in 15 years, I’m now of the opinion that, in all likelihood, the Python tune is the more historically accurate of the two.
Cromwell opens in 1640, at which point Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), a god-fearing Puritan and a Magistrate from Cambridge, is packing up his belongings so he can move his family to America, where he hopes to escape the petty corruptions and religious reforms that have run rampant under the reign of the current monarch, King Charles I (Alec Guinness). But when Parliament is suddenly recalled by the King, Cromwell and his associates see it as an opportunity to change the way the country is being governed. Alas, Parliament, which was dissolved by Charles I a dozen years earlier, was only recalled to help raise money for an upcoming war with Scotland. When Parliament instead presents the king with a list of demands, it’s immediately dissolved once again. Feeling they have no alternative, Parliament assembles an army (nicknamed the “Roundheads”), thus plunging England into Civil War.
After being trounced in their first battle by the Cavaliers, who were under the command of the King’s nephew Prince Rupert (Timothy Dalton), the Parliamentary forces regroup. Cromwell returns to Cambridge and raises a new, better-trained army, and at the Battle of Naseby, easily defeats the King and Prince Rupert, the first of many losses the two Royals would suffer on the battlefield. After achieving total victory, Cromwell makes one final attempt to reconcile with the King, only to learn that Charles I is secretly trying to secure troops from Scotland and Ireland for a second Civil War. As a result, Charles I is put on trial for high treason, which, if found guilty, could cost him his head. And while some of his compatriots feel executing the King is itself a treasonable offense, Cromwell is determined to see things through to the end.
As Cromwell, Richard Harris bellows and pontificates his way through the entire movie, delivering every line as if it were the film’s most important (even when talking to his sons before the Battle of Naseby, Harris’ Cromwell sounds less like a concerned father, and more like a preacher addressing his congregation). Also problematic is the movie’s historical accuracy. As portrayed, Oliver Cromwell was a saint of a man, a leader who fought for freedom and liberty for both himself and the people of England. Now, I may not be the world’s foremost authority on the subject, but I’m fairly certain the truth was more complex than that (A few of my Irish friends paint a very different picture of Cromwell).
These deficiencies aside, there are things about Cromwell that continue to impress me, from its well-choreographed battle scenes to the way it recreates the trial of Charles I (which, in turn, leads to the film’s most dramatic scene). Also strong is Alec Guinness as the King, who comes across as more believable than Harris (the real Charles I had a speech impediment, a slight stammering problem, which Guinness manages to convey without drawing too much attention to it). These aspects alone make Cromwell worth seeing.
But if it’s a history lesson you’re after, you might want to look elsewhere.