Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Witchfinder General

I was flagging when I wrote about the horror week in the BBC's Summer of British Film. But I have rallied to tape and watch Witchfinder General.

It has long been on my list of films I want to see, though I suspect part of its mystique lies in the fact that its director Michael Reeves died at the age of 25 shortly after making it.

The best summing up of the film came in the documentary about British horror films that preceded it when someone described it as a British Western. The score and the open spaces of Suffolk give this impression, but it has more to do with the film's vision of a society riven by civil war where strange beliefs can flourish. We radicals know that it happened in politics with the Diggers and Levellers, but it happened in religion too and the results could be less benign.

For the film does have some basis in historical fact. In an essay on Witchfinder General Quentin Turnour writes:
although neither Hopkins or Stearne were historically the sort of melodramatic “anti” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza sketched in the script, the film has a sense of responsibility to historical facts and logic rare in low-budget studio films.
And if it is a Western, then it is a dark one. Its hero is played by Ian Ogilvy, who was clean cut enough to play the lead in The Saint in its brief 1970s revival. He is also a minor member of the British acting aristocracy in that his mother was John Mills' first wife.

But as Turnour says:
Ogilvy's Marshall begins as an anguished gentleman-officer, forebear to the earlier fine, politely upset warriors of David Lean and Carol Reed (and Dirk Bogarde's agonised trench-knight in Witchfinder General's near contemporary, Joseph Losey's King and Country, 1964). But by the end he has become the axe-welding avenger of every schlock-Horror quickie. Reeves' achievement is that this hollow moral resonance is the film's crucial affect.
This reminds me of the insight from the philosopher Jacques Ellul that David Boyle is fond of quoting: when you fight someone you become like them.

I have not mentioned it before, but each week one film from the relevant category is being shown at cinemas around the country. The horror film on show this week is The Wicker Man, and Will Howells has been to see it for you.

Will enjoyed the BBC documentary on horror more than I did, grateful as I am to it for helping me to see Witchfinder General as a Western. The documentary made an effort to connect the popularity of horror films with the permissiveness of the 1960s, but it missed the importance of the domestic horror films The Nanny and Our Mother's House, which I have written about before.

In The Nanny, the magnificent Pamela Franklin is a liberated teen, listening to records and blowing cigarette smoke through her fringe. In the flat below William Dix is fighting for his life against his Nanny Bette Davis. And she is scarier even than Vincent Price's Matthew Hopkins.


Anonymous said...

I was, perhaps, a little too casual in my praise of the documentary as it did have its drawbacks, but an hour and a half was still an unexpected treat.

I haven't seen The Nanny in some time, but very much enjoyed it (as is becoming a bit of a habit with Bette Davis films). I still haven't got around to watching The Blue Lamp, though, which was packaged on DVD with The Nanny.

Blognor Regis said...

I've got the same DVD as Will but I'm the other way around. I've watched The Blue Lamp plenty but not seen The Nanny.

TBL's is a cracker. I see it's been re-released onto its own DVD now but I wonder why it and Pool of London, say, where never included in any of the Ealing Boxed Sets?