Sometime around 1956, eighteen-year-old Kevin Brownlow and his sixteen-year-old friend Andrew Mollo started to shoot a feature film at weekends about a Nazi-occupied Britain. Eight years later, that project had become a professional production given a West End release: It Happened Here. However, fame and fortune was not to be theirs. The film proved controversial. Even without a sequence featuring real neo-Nazis expounding their philosophy (a sequence cut by the distributors – not the censors, as the booklet mistakenly says - and not restored until the video release in 1994), the filmmakers were accused by some of being anti-Semitic and fascist, when their true sentiments – as shown in their next feature – are in fact more left-leaning. They did have some work in the film industry – both worked on Doctor Zhivago and both were fired from The Breaking of Bumbo, a film never given a cinema release. But as directors, they were thought of as uncommercial, something their second and to date final feature, Winstanley, funded by the BFI, did not change. For one thing, in 1975, making a film in black and white, though undoubtedly aesthetically justified, was a commercial strike against it – and shooting a film in Academy Ratio ensured that only arthouses and repertory cinemas could show it properly. Brownlow and Mollo clearly found the struggle to even be able to make a film too much, as they have never directeda fiction feature again. Mollo continues to work as a production designer and historical consultant, while Brownlow began to specialise in celebrating the silent era, by restoring its masterworks and interviewing its then-surviving participants, and producing such television series as Hollywood and Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood.
Of Brownlow and Mollo's two features, Winstanley is probably the lesser known, even though both were largely unavailable until their1990s VHS releases. This is partly because the the making of It Happened Here is such a beguiling story of persistence, especially considering that the directors were schoolboys when they begun it. Another is because It Happened Here is science fiction, and listings in appropriate reference books meant that genre fans were certainly aware of the film, even if, like myself, they couldn't see it until 1994 (in my case, at a showing at the National Film Theatre with Brownlow in attendance).
Winstanley, based on the novel Comrade Jacob by David Caute, on the other hand, delves into the past. It is set in 1649, in a period of unrest following the English Civil War. Led by Gerrard Winstanley (Miles Halliwell, who had had a small part in It Happened Here), a group of men and women known as the Diggers create a settlement on common land on St George's Hill, near Weybridge in Surrey. Their intentions are peaceful, but the local landowners think differently...
Mollo introduced himself to Brownlow, and became involved with It Happened Here by criticising the historical accuracy of what Brownlow had shot up to that point. The first thing to say about Winstanley is that its accuracy is not in doubt, even down to the particular breed of pig that the Diggers kept. Much of the film's voiceover is derived from Winstanley's writings. To do this on a very limited budget is a remarkable achievement in itself. Ernest Vincze's high-contrast black and white camerawork is a major asset.
With one exception (Jerome Willis as General Lord Fairfax), the cast is made up of non-professionals. You could quibble about some less-than-polished acting and line delivery. As Winstanley, the late Miles Hallowell has a fascinating face, and a quietly-spoken schoolmasterish authority. Brownlow and Mollo cast for faces and bodies rather than acting ability, and in the interview on this DVD they tell stories of approaching people on the London Underground to appear in their film. You suspect much of Brownlow's input here, as aesthetically Winstanley shows the influence of the silent films he has dedicated much of his later career to. Though, as he points out, the opening battle is influenced not so much by Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (despite Prokofiev's music on the soundtrack), more by Welles's Chimes at Midnight.
Winstanley is ultimately a film of ideas, and tends to keep the viewer at arms length. This makes it a film more to admire than to love. However there is much to admire and much to regret too – that Brownlow and Mollo have never directed a feature film since.
Winstanley is released by the BFI on a single dual-layered DVD. Despite what it says on the back cover, it is encoded for all regions, not just Region 2. There is also a Blu-ray edition, reviewed by Noel Megahey here.
The DVD is transferred in 4:3, reflecting the intended Academy Ratio of the film. The opening sequence was shot in 16mm and inevitably shows more grain than the rest of the film which was originated on 35mm. It captures the high contrast of Vincze's photography, all deep blacks and many shades of grey.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented as a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. This track has been fully restored, and dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced. There are some lipsynch issues, due to the amount of post-production looping carried out, an inevitable result of shooting in the flightpath of Heathrow Airport. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature and the extras.
Those extras begin with what is billed as an interview but is really a three-way chat between Brownlow, Mollo and former head of the BFI Production Board Mamoun Hassan, recorded in 2008. It runs 38:05. It's commendably thorough, beginning with the controversy surrounding It Happened Here and the lack of opportunities following it. Brownlow and Mollo talk about the inspiration for Winstanley and its long and cash-strapped production, its influences and the reaction to it. Brownlow suggests that successful film directors have a very macho quality, which is something he himself lacks.
It Happened Here Again (47:17) was a 16mm documentary on the making of Winstanley, directed by Eric Mival. The film is in colour, apart from extracts from Winstanley and It Happened Here. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Brownlow and Mollo.
9 Dalmuir West (12:18) is a charming documentary made by Brownlow in 1962 about the last ride of the Glasgow trams. The tramcar in Victorian times had been in some part responsible for the expansion of cities, but now they are being scrapped. For Glaswegians, the trams were a symbol of economic hardship, being the only form of transport many citizens could afford to use. But the city was more prosperous, and more people had private cars, and finally the trams closed to give way to the more modern bus. The soundtrack features the then-current and futuristic-sounding hit single Telstar by The Tornados.
Finally, there is a restoration demonstration (1:40). The disc extras have a Play All option.
The BFI's booklet begins with an essay by David Gardiner, then continues with an account by script consultant Marina Lewycka (now better known as the bestselling author of the novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian). Contemporary reviews by Tom Milne, Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Robinson are reprinted, and the booklet concludes with credits for the feature and the extras, biographies of the directors and a short piece by Eric Mival on the making of It Happened Here Again.