It’s somehow just right that Ken Hughes should have followed up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) with this preposterous historical drama about Oliver Cromwell. At its best, Cromwell (1970) reaches something like the depth (and accuracy) of a Classics Illustrated comic book. At its worst, it’s considerably more entertaining than that (though not in the way intended) with an impressive cast of Brit thespians yelling dialogue in that declamatory manner that clues you in on the fact that this is important stuff. And no one can beat Richard Harris at that sort of thing when he’s at his Richard Harris-est, as he is here.
Putting aside the dubious notion of painting an heroic picture of Oliver Cromwell, this sort of historical drama is hard to pull off. There are ways to do it—like turning it into a swashbuckler or an historical romp. Alternatively, there was Orson Welles’ approach in Chimes at Midnight (1965) where he not only accented the period squalor, but staged battle scenes that dropped the viewer into the thick of the fray. Unfortunately, Hughes does none of these things. Instead, he gives us bogus Historical Pageant 101—over-lit, over-clean and overacted. That last, however, is what makes this surprisingly entertaining.
First and foremost, there’s the aforementioned Richard Harris—forever bending his head forward so he can glower out of the top of his eyes, shouting his lines and generally gnawing through ever bit of scenery in sight. It’s hard to blame him when you consider the script. Really, is there a good way of delivering phrases like, “In the name of Christ’s bowels”? You try it. See? It can’t be done. (At the same time, I think that’s going into my personal lexicon of epithets.) Now, if Hughes had had the presence of mind to have Harris break into “MacArthur Park,” he might have truly been onto something.
As if to counterpoint Harris’s blustering fury, Alec Guinness seems to have opted to play King Charles I in a comparatively restrained manner—albeit affecting a mild stammer, which may have been historically accurate, may have been an attempt (God knows why) to allegorically connect him with George VI, or may have been a device for stealing scenes. In this last, at least, it was effective. Guinness calmly walks off with every scene he’s in—something that seems to only egg on Harris to bluster and glower some more.
The rest of the cast is less well-served—or maybe just underused. Though Robert Morley appears to be having a shamelessly good time playing at this game of historical dressing up. In the end, that’s what the whole film feels like—a game of dress up. It’s not exactly persuasive and it’s not exactly dramatic, but it keeps the whole ill-advised enterprise watchable.