In 1986, Bill Douglas, who had been unable to make another film since the final part of his autobiographical Trilogy in 1978, was finally given support and the necessary funding to finish a long-cherished project about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of Dorset men who were arrested and transported to Australia in 1834 for having the temerity to form a union and demand a fair wage to feed their starving families. The description of Comrades as a “poor-man’s epic” is well suited, not only in how the film takes the side of the common man, commemorating their story in a grand manner yet one in keeping with the modesty of their character, but also in how it would come to be the grand lifework, the single full-length feature of a director of a humble background and modest resources.
Anyone who has seen the director’s Trilogy, released on DVD by the BFI last year and recently upgraded to a Blu-ray release to tie in with this release, will realise that if there is any director well equipped to understand the motivations of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and capable of depicting the grim realism of their poverty on the screen, it’s Bill Douglas, whose childhood of abuse and deprivation is covered with remarkable authenticity in his early autobiographical work. The same sense of directness hits the viewer with shocking immediacy from the first scenes of Comrades and it never lets up throughout the entire three-hours of the remarkable journey not only of the men in the film, but of the journey made in basic human rights.
Douglas understands that it’s the abuse of those rights that speak louder about the nature of poverty than it being simply the lack of money or food on the table, but it’s the lengths it drives the men to (in one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, one starving man pulls a stolen turnip out of the ground, takes a few bites and replants it in the field), and the sacrifices that have to be made simply to subsist. It’s being unable to have children for lack of being able to provide for them, the continual erosion of one’s dignity and the injustice of having no-one to appeal to for the basic right of a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Such is the nature of the system, imposed by the powerful and influential rich landowners, supported by the conservative religious leaders who know which side their bread is buttered on, urging their flock to know their place and be grateful, that even the very idea of standing up against those institutions is completely unthinkable. Yet such is the dire need of the husbands and fathers for nothing more than to be able to provide for their families, that some men dare to think the unthinkable and set up a union in secret, banding together in support of each other to ask for one extra shilling in their pay, a shilling that they had already earned, but which has been taken away from them. For such an outrageous defiance of the order of things, for not knowing and accepting their place, six of the men for their pains are transported to Australia to serve 7 years in penal servitude.
Douglas depicts the reality of these circumstances without overemphasis or grandstanding (with rather more restraint than myself in writing this review, I admit), showing it in the inability to give a penny to a passing travelling magic lantern entertainer, showing their disgrace in the state of a pair of shoes and in the face of the wearer of those shoes, embarrassed at their condition. The lengths they have to go to in defiance of their beliefs is shown in a carpenter embarrassed to be seen working on the Sabbath, working day and night regardless, crafting exquisite chairs that will be sold for a pittance or not sold at all, the work going to another carpenter who is so desperate that he will do it even cheaper. Broken promises of a restitution of their shilling grind the men down further, the vicar’s platitudes delivering nothing tangible. Such is the hopeless position of the workers depicted by Douglas that when George Loveless, a local Methodist minister, suggests that all the carpenters get together to set a basic minimum standard for living, it comes like a bolt out of the blue.
Or perhaps not. Such is the power of Bill Douglas’s remarkable depiction of the men’s lives that their plight is given form in other less immediately definable ways. He shows the bond between families in such as way that the idea of togetherness is already suggested, he shows the breakaway of one man from the traditional church, and consequently his own mother, each of these actions speaking of a desire for a more natural order of community, human and social interaction than the rigid conformity imposed by unjust institutions looking after their own interests. There is no explanatory narrative in Comrades to point this out to you, but like his work on the Trilogy, it’s there in those complex family bonds, it’s there in the state and the sparseness of their shared living accommodation, it’s there in the measured tones of voices and in the faces, where the looks of desperate entreaty, defiance and devastation can be seen. There is no dignity in their poverty since it is founded on injustice, on the lack of love for one’s fellow man, on getting something for nothing, on suppression and denial of human rights, on preying on the weak – something that can only be countered with an approach of solidarity.
Ah, and if that were all that Comrades were about, nothing more than a powerful rebuttal and condemnation of Thatcherism that was at its height in 1986, it would still be a great and deeply moving film, but that is only half the story. The second part of the film follows the men’s experience in Australia, expanding on the theme and showing not just the injustice and abuse committed also out there in the colonies against the aboriginal people, but getting to the heart of what justice means, the nature of people and a belief in their intrinsic goodness. Australia, the power and wonder of its unspoiled beauty, represents a return to nature, a chance to start again and get it right this time, but inevitably ideals and beliefs have become twisted and corrupted. In this manner, Douglas raises relevant moral questions about the nature of freedom, equality of man and injustice, and not in any conventional didactic manner, through dialogue, narration or simple illustrative scenes with moral messages, but using the very fabric of the cinematic medium, through light and sound, through colour and location – Gale Tattersall’s cinematography remarkably beautiful and eloquent in this respect.
Even that doesn’t do justice to the other riches to be found in Comrades. For Bill Douglas, it’s not enough to just make a film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, he pours his life into the film also, not just drawing on his own experience of poverty in an underprivileged background, but introducing his interest in magic lanterns and early pre-cinema and weaving it into the narrative. Alex Norton’s multiple roles as laternist, guide, narrator, participant and observer could be seen as standing in for the director himself here, Douglas self-reflexively considering the nature and power of cinema to record and commemorate for posterity, impose a meaningful narrative structure for education and edification, about its ability (in the hands of a capable director) to delve into the souls of human beings long gone, and derive meaning from an event long ago in the past that many then believed would be quickly forgotten about, but which still has importance and meaning for everyone today.
is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI as a 2-disc set. The film is held on a BD50 disc and comes with a 1080/24p encode. The extra features are on a separate BD25 disc and are all 1080/24p. The set is not region locked.
There is a wonderful richness to the variety of the colouration in the film, from the cold, grey sodden paths, to the verdant fields and golden crops, the colour even taking on another level of vibrancy altogether when it moves to Australia. The transfer copes marvellously with the changes of tone, fully doing justice to the quality of the cinematography.
I’m not sure why, but a decision has been made to transfer the film at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 rather than the ratio of 1.66:1 that can be seen in clips of the film in the Lanterna Magicka extra feature, but as that documentary also reveals, that original ratio was a compromise in any case from the director’s desire to use variable aspect ratios.
There are a few minor marks and dustspots, one or two fleeting larger bits of debris that pass by without causing any trouble, but the majority of the film is perfectly clean and clear. Grain is there, but stable and wonderfully encoded to retain its structure. That said, on one or two occasions there is a faint level of flicker, probably from the telecine process, and some minor jitter in movements, but the overriding impression is of a remarkably sharp and detailed image.
The audio track is PCM 2.0 48 kHz stereo, although directed towards the centre with no noticeable widening out, it sounds pretty much mono. There is an excellent clarity and tone throughout, with no sign of underlying analogue hiss or noise reduction dampening.
English for Hard of Hearing, French, Spanish and German are available for the feature. Only English for Hard of Hearing subtitles are included for the extra features.
Lanterna Magicka – Bill Douglas & the Secret History of Cinema (1:03:14) examines the director’s love of pre-cinema, early silent cinema and world cinema (particularly Bresson and Buñuel) and considers its influence on his work. His vast personal collection of pre-cinema devices and ephemera is looked at, with input from his friend and fellow-enthusiast Peter Jewell, as well as how it found its way into Comrades and how it is employed in the film. There are contributions also from key players in the films making, covering the history of the whole difficult production.
Visions of: Comrades (15:22) consists of outtakes and a repetition of some of the interview material from the Bill Douglas – Intent on Getting the Image feature found on the Trilogy release, focussing specifically on the making of Comrades, with contributions coming from actors and producers involved in the film.
Filmed in the director’s home, a 1978 Bill Douglas interview (19:18) covers his early education as a filmmaker, his interest in pre-cinema (Douglas delighting in demonstrating some of the objects in his fabulous collection), the pressures of the filmmaking process, his interest in bringing life to characters and considerations of how to portray them in the Trilogy.
The second part of the same interview, Bill Douglas: reflections on his Trilogy (12:17) focuses on what he wanted to achieve and how he went about it, casting for the film and getting both actors and non-actors to trust him to work without a script, working to capture the essence of the moment.
A 1974 short film by Michael Alexander, Home and Away (31:10), co-scripted by Bill Douglas, ties in very much with the idea of childhood experience. A young boy from the islands, James, comes over to the mainland to attend school, boarding in a small B&B starts with three other boys and one of their teachers. The mischievous behaviour of the children and the experience of James over the course of one term feels fairly authentic and close to Bill Douglas’s themes. The film, taken from a 16mm print looks slightly faded, but reasonably fine, and although there is a slight booming quality to the audio, it’s clear enough.
The Comrades Trailer (3:54) is also in 1.78:1 widescreen, summarising the content and range of the film well.
An local TV news On-set Report (2:17) covers the event of the film being shot in Dorset, looking at the creation of the Tolpuddle set and highlighting some of the production difficulties, with some comments made by Bill Douglas.
A 36-page booklet illustrated with stills, is also included. In it Grahame Smith celebrates the rediscovery of Comrades, examines the use of the Lanternist as a feature and identifies one or two moments of pure magic in the film that define its cause. Credits and Cast information is also provided, samples of script and storyboards, a transcript of a Bill Douglas’s responses to a 1987 post-screening Q&A of the film, and a Biography of Bill Douglas by Louise Milne. Additional information, acknowledgements and credits are supplied for the extra feature material, and technical information on version of the film and the transfer.
The release of Comrades on Blu-ray and DVD is undoubtedly one of the events of the year, a rediscovery of a powerful and moving film that was underappreciated at the time it was released and has almost been forgotten in the meantime. The unique qualities demonstrated by Bill Douglas in his autobiographical Trilogy, are expanded on and developed further here, taken to an epic scale, while at the same time remaining rooted in the individual, with a profound understanding of the human spirit, the experience of poverty, suffering and faith in the eventual deliverance of the common man. On a superb Blu-ray release, the transfer does full justice to the cinematography, colouration and the intangible qualities of the film’s magic, the feature well-supported by illuminating features on its making and on the man behind it. There couldn’t be a finer tribute to a great director than making his genius known to a wider audience, and this release does just that.