In the accompanying podcast, we discuss Bill Douglas’ fourth and final film, COMRADES, very different from his earlier trilogy: A three-hour-long epic of the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’, a group of early 19th-century agricultural workers who band together to unite against the lowering of their wages, form The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, an early form of trade union, campaign against rich landowners, end up on trial on a spurious charge — swearing an illegal oath — and get shipped to serve their sentence in Australia.
References to early forms of cinema structure the film’s narrative; the story is told through an account of the pre-history of motion pictures: shadow play, magic lanterns, camera obscura, heliotypes, dioramas.
The story is fascinating because it is a pre-history of the union movement and also pre-Marx.
We discuss how the film becomes less interesting in the second half where the narrative moves to Australia, partly because we lose sight of what happens in Britain: the rallying, the support, the organising. In Australia, the Tolpuddle martyrs and indigenous people are seen to share an experience of oppression. But we also see the limits of this, how some of the white oppressed themselves become oppressors as soon as they get a little power.
We also discuss how the FILM might be both an unwieldy mess and a very great film. What is beautiful about this movie is the way Douglas films working class people and landscape. There’s a real tension between the narrative and the poetic. The storytelling is tortured. Interesting to compare with MY WAY HOME, in which the Scottish section seemed stronger than the last part where he goes into the army and abroad. At it’s best, the film brings to mind Chahine’s THE LAND. At its worst, it feels uncompromising and a little bit self-indulgent.
The film has a very great cast with famous actors playing the upper classes (Robert Stephens, James Fox, Vanessa Redgrave) and then unknown actors playing the workers (Imelda Staunton, Keith Allen, Phil Davies).Barbara Windsor, falls somewhere in between and offers a wonderful turn.
England is shown as inhospitable, unfair, unjust. It’s a real condemnation.
The podcast may be listened to here:
The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT
and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546
Those interested may find a good background article on Comrades here: https://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/about/bills-films/comrades/
The Bill Douglas article about the pre-cinema stuff in the film that Richard references in the podcsat may be accessed here: https://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/about/bills-films/a-lanternist-and-his-comrades-by-bill-douglas/
The film is available to buy on BFI blu ray, and is also available for rent on BFI Player and on Amazon Prime in a very good print.