New Communist Party of Britain
SET THE SCENE in the middle of the English Civil War. Cast leading actors for the parts of the leading personalities of the period. Provide well researched period sets and location shots. Script a story that seamlessly runs from the battle of Naseby to the execution of Charles 1 and the establishment of the Commonwealth of England. An ideal recipe for a great period drama. Unfortunately this was not it.
To Kill a King tries to reduce the complex struggles of the civil war to the personalities of Charles Stuart, Oliver Cromwell and General Fairfax in an entertaining drama which is sadly a travesty of events. While the characters of Charles and Sir Thomas Fairfax are recognisable interpretations of the Royalist and Presbyterian parties, Tim Roth's Cromwell is a ridiculous caricature of the leader of the English bourgeois revolution which owes more to Royalist propaganda down the ages than historical reality.
Here Cromwell is a dark murderous Robespierre, jealous of Fairfax's popularity with the army and driven by fanatical Puritanical beliefs. Quite how Cromwell rose to the highest rank in the New Model Army to eventually become head of state of the Commonwealth remains a mystery in this movie. Now and again a seedy band of unshaven men in Puritan kit called the "brethren" come and go to whisper in Cromwell's ear while the soldiers are just extras to fill the crowd scenes or cheer at appropriate moments in the drama.
The senior republican officers who backed Cromwell and the Leveller rank-and-file army leaders who called them "grandees" might just as well not existed. Fair enough you can say -- that's dramatic licence. But is that an excuse for the gross bias?
Take the trial of the king -- the central theme of the plot. Now it is true that state trials of the 17th century only had one verdict and one sentence but was it really necessary to depict jurors signing the death sentence before the trial begins? Is our understanding of the plot really helped by scenes of Cromwell sentencing "traitors" to be burnt alive at Tyburn or depicting the drive to his palace lined with gibbets?
These scenes, and there are many more, come from the imagination of the scriptwriter and bear no resemblance to fact whatsover. Civil wars are brutal affairs and ours was no exception. Martial law, massacres and firing squads were our taste of the horrors of the Thirty Years' War which racked Europe in the 17th century. But the actual history of those epic days is enough for any historical drama without inventing things that never happened.
Or is there? Perhaps the real problem with the film, which makes a hero of Fairfax because he opposed the trial and execution of the king, is the bourgeoisie's inability to come to terms with the English Revolution. The ruling class are heirs to the 1688 "Glorious Revolution" which deposed another Stuart and replaced him with a king chosen by Parliament itself.
This "revolution" established what Fairfax's camp wanted in the first place -- an oligarchy ruling in partnership with a monarch. It was unattainable in 1649 following the second civil war. Anger at the renewed bloodshed provoked by Charles' double-dealing united Cromwell's Independent supporters with the militant Levellers who wanted an end to Charles and an end to the monarchy as well.
For a brief moment, little more than Cromwell's own lifetime, England was a republic. Though the experiment failed the "Glorious Revolution" could not have happened without it. But ever since the ruling class have been in a process of denial. They can't elevate Cromwell because they uphold an institution Oliver reluctantly abolished -- an institution they restored to serve their own class interests.
A golden opportunity to bring those epic days to life on screen has sadly been ignored in favour of a Restoration romp of politics and intrigue.
4th July 2003