Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Cromwell at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 16, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Genre: Classics Illustrated History
Director: Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
Starring: Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Robert Morley, Dorothy Tutin, Frank Finlay, Nigel Stock
Rated: G

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Cromwell

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.