CROMWELL, as in Oliver Cromwell, 1599-1658, was a big wheel in English history, leading Parliament in Civil War against King Charles I. When the epic 1970 movie version arrived, audiences were disinclined to speech-loaded costume party theatrics, opting for the punchier, more recent hero rascals of Patton and Little Big Man. The $9,000,000 effort did decent business in the home sod of Britain (where presumably some history was still taught), but it was drawn and quartered in the U.S., a $4,800,000 return barely making it to spot #52.
“Therefore, put your trust in God – and keep your powder dry!” *
England, the 1640s. Parliament breaks with King Charles I (Alec Guinness) and a Civil War results. At stake is control over who rules & how, along with that good old bitter religious divide between Protestants and Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans, men of property and rabble (see: current events). Fiery country squire Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris) leads the revolt. Debates, speeches, betrayals and battles are the order of the day.
Unfortunately, all the talk and most of the action fails to engage on an emotional level, other than in appreciation of the production values. Directed and written by Ken Guest, it makes for a dutiful-dull history lesson (with a good deal of inaccurate detail to vex those keeping score of the actual record), with endless declamatory blather by characters who don’t arouse any sympathy. Harris plays on two notes—sullen posing or shouting while posing. Guinness has a few good moments, but as presented the dithering Charles is just another dreary ruler. We are unmoved. **
The non-shining stars are backed by a host of top-rate English character actors—Michael Jayston, Robert Morley, Timothy Dalton, Patrick Wymark, Dorothy Tutin, Charles Gray, Patrick Magee, Nigel Stock, Douglas Wilmer, Frank Finlay, Michael Goodlife. They all get to huff and puff, and they all do so well enough (practice making perfect) but it goes on and on, a stillborn 141 minutes worth.
The two battle scenes are big-scale affairs, their pageantry impressive at a distance but not exciting in the details. Those sequences were filmed near Pamplona in Spain (paging Lord Irony), using the handy Spanish Army as extras (lot’s of ’em). The bulk was done in England, with elaborate sets constructed for London’s Parliament Square, complete with the House of Commons, Westminster Palace and Abbey, and many other structures. The costume design is a definite plus (over 4,000 were created)—fun if you like big hats. The gaudy garb won a Costume Design Academy Award, and another nomination went to Frank Cordell’s handsome music score.
I recall being impressed with this when I was 15, but a recent tackle had me thinking it would be the kind of presentation lampooned by Monty Python. Too earnest by half, barely a whisper of (intentional) humor, clunky, obvious, repetitive and loud. Kudos to the costumes and scoring, yawns for the rest.
* Other historical sagas that bled red in ’70—-Waterloo, The Hawaiians, The Molly McGuires, The Great White Hope.
** Not allowing the lead role in a big flick to cut into his lordly pint & 5th consumption, Richard Harris outdid himself. He had a monumental hangover delirium episode that went full belfry when he saw Guinness in costume for the Royal beheading. Losing it, he went berserk, trying to halt the “execution.” Filming shut down for 18 hours, while a tranquilized ‘Cromwell’ came to from his temporary nervous breakdown and woke up in the 20th-century. Ripped Van Harris.