Films Cromwell at the Pi Alley Theatre
ONE SURE sign of senescence is a pedantic impulse, and Cromwell carries the belabored aging process of the historical film spectacle one teetering step past the previous low mark set by Anne of the Thousand Days. Whereas Anne at least tapped a romantic vein sure to keep Redbook and Seventeen reviewers cooing, Cromwell develops no gratifying love-or period-interest. Ken Hughes' bland direction and screenplay instead distort history to remove any possible ambiguities from Cromwell's public actions during the English Revolution: he is portrayed from the very beginning of the fray as the prime, the only principled, advocate of Parliament, "people," and "democracy." The movie eventually gets smothered in its own over-simplifications-and in one extraordinarily bad performance.
Richard Harris in the title role attempts to control a speaking voice only half viable even in shouted orations, pitiably weak in normal conversation. After his "MacArthur Park" sprint to hit parade status, Harris turned out a lamentable series of songs and albums a la Tom Jones only to find his voice failing under the strain. For those repulsed by Harris' posturing as King Arthur in Camelot, Cromwell will hold only one surprise: in between the musical and the historical epic, Harris has lost his ability to speak. For a second-string Richard Burton, such and impairment is obviously of a high order, especially since Harris' own brand of acting is so mannered and monochromatic. He stalks through this film scowling a large part of the time (perhaps he supposes Puritans are not to smile, just as cuckolded Kings are not to rise above buffoonery). When he hits the moments which call for fake-historical eloquence, Harris twists his face into a wrinkled metaphor of Tension, rolls his eyeballs a few times and tries to sustain audible discourse.
Harris' speech handicap makes it impossible for Ken Hughes to offer any vision of Cromwell the private man, since domestic scenes have to be played at less than a shout, and a hoarse whisper is the only alternative to a shout that Harris can come up with. I stress this failing not to slur Harris (indeed, Cromwell by the end of his career was probably hoarse too!): rather, I bring it up as a factor crucial in explaining why the ideological bias of the movie-strongly pro-Cromwell-fails to work convincingly in actual dramatic interchange.
ALEC GUINNESS as King Charles I gives a performance of such finesse that Harris' Cromwell, by contrast, seems all peevish bluster. Cromwell can retain audience sympathy only when he strikes out against painfully over-drawn bogies of pure evil, such as the dissolute Lord Manchester (Robert Morley). Though Hughes takes pains to paint Cromwell as a sexually vigorous masculine dynamo (we even have one shot of him the bracing a long spear), there is more life and sexuality in the tender parting of Charles and his queen (Dorothy Tutin) than in either of the cardboard domestic scenes between Oliver and the vapid Mrs. Cromwell. I say either, as the camera only takes us into Cromwell's country estate once at the beginning and once toward the end of the film. In between, he is in terms of motivation but a robot; the fluid shifts in Charles' feelings, however, receive more continuous and more affecting development all through the film than one would expect in an epic called Cromwell.
Guinness had the genius to reproduce the stutter in Charles' speech which proved such a debility to the King in public life and, generally, to convey the reticence of a man denounced as tyrant but more suited for his private roles as art collector and cher papa. Harris, on the other hand, was put in the unfortunate quandary of acting out destinies both historically inaccurate and dramatically unconvincing. If I were discussing Garbo's Queen Christina, the license so common in historical romance could be admitted to extenuate glaring inaccuracies in terms of fact. But anyone who sits through two and a half hours of Cromwell is really entitled to know that Cromwell was not one of the Five Members Charles tried to arrest in 1642, that Pym died in 1643 and not circa 1647, that Ireton was not a power-mad advocate of absolute government, that Edward Hyde did not abandon Charles' cause, and that Cromwell did not spend "six years" wasting away in the country before the Protectorate. One of those lumbering ironies for which such films strive ( Anne concluded with a pan shot of Good Queen Bess as a tot) was in Cromwell based on blatant contrivance: Cromwell the regicide was not forced during the Commonwealth to reject fawning Parliamentarians offering him a crown, though Hughes has written a totally factious scene into his screenplay precisely to that effect. The film succeeds no better as history than it has as entertainment.
IN TERMS of genre, the film bears stronger resemblance to those patriotic T. V. slots, "Profiles in Courage," perhaps, than it does to art. In Cromwell, desire to inculcate "fact" (and I have shown what sort of fact) offers the only plausible motivation for staging, in huge panorama, each of the three major battles of the first Civil War. With the nitty-gritty gore and pageant out of the way, the American viewer could hardly be expected to resist a few heart-pangs when Harris walks through mist to touch the corpse of his son, slung over a horse, a battle casualty. This, the signal for intermission, brought instead groans of irritation from the Pi Alley audience. If cliches be wanted, cliche vendors like Ken Hughes must take a back seat to Erich Segal.
With Harris as Cromwell, George C. Scott as Patton, and Rod Steiger forthcoming as Napoleon, movie audiences will soon have that "choose a tyrant for 99c" option used to sell biographies of Louis XIV and Stalin in the book section of the New York Times. As biographies become flabby compendia, so historical movies-with the notable exception of Rossellini's The Rise of Louis XIV -go up in factual pretension while they go down in quality. Darryl Zanuck in Tora! Tora! Tora! spent millions to reproduce historical fact, but sacrificed artistic coherence for lavish commercial packaging. Hughes' Cromwell also fails, though on a smaller scale. But even as a larger financial venture, Cromwell's soupy musical score would probably just have been soupier (kettle drums beating more often as Cromwell opens his mouth), the battle standards ("In God we Trust," "God and Country" and sundry other embarrassing Americanisms) would have been painted and stitched with greater care, a voice coach might have been called in for Harris and less flaccid extras used for the battle scenes. The final shot of Cromwell wearily seated in the Speaker's Chair and pondering his future labors would have been scrapped for two more hours about his doings in the Protectorate. Then the musak angels piping in the background could have pronounced their benediction on a much larger catastrophe than this film already is.