Classic Film Review: Richard Harris, and his makeup, are “Cromwell”

“Cromwell” came out in 1970, a late entry in a formidable run of stately British period pieces.

It’s inferior to “Anne of a Thousand Days,” “Becket,” “A Man for All Seasons” and even the somewhat stagebound “The Lion in Winter.” But it’s got realistic English Civil War battles, glorious Puritan/Cavalier era costumes, an abridged and bastardized piece of British history and Richard Harris and Alec Guinness, so it’s worth a go if you haven’t seen it.

Harris plays the gentleman-farmer Cromwell, about to emigrate to America where his fellow Puritans have set up shop, when he’s goaded into returning to Parliament to show the imperious, constitution-flouting Charles I (Guinness) that “the people” are in charge of the purse strings, and thus the country.

The high-handed Charles needs money, and only the Parliament — which he dissolved years before — can raise it. And with Cromwell and his fellow puritans like Pym (Geoffrey Keen) leading the way, and earls like Manchester (Robert Morley) and Essex (Charles Gray) bristling at the king’s overreach, Charles won’t get a ha’penny, blast his eyes.

Civil War it is then, and with the King’s continental nephew Prince Rupert (Timothy Dalton) here to “Tally HO” the royals, what can go wrong?

The great Geoffrey Unsworth was cinematographer, and the Spanish exteriors (Pamplona, Navarre and environs) make for splendid battlefields filled with musketeers, pikemen, artillery and cavalry, which Spain under Franco was always willing to provide on the cheap.

The dialogue — director Ken Hughes (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) also scripted it — is pungently quotable, and Harris and Guinness make quite the theatrical statement with the best lines.

The newly-devout Cromwell –“O Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.”

The tyrannical snob Charles — “A democracy, Mr. Cromwell, was a Greek drollery based on the foolish notion that there are extraordinary possibilities in very ordinary people.”

And of course, there’s the most famous Cromwell battlefield quote of them all — “Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry.”

The history is something of a mashup, condensing three civil wars into one, shifting Cromwell’s importance in this or that battle, putting him at the execution of King Charles (he wasn’t there), all sorts of things great and small which even someone not a stickler for British history can sense.

Still and all, I think it works — after a fashion. Whatever deserved abuse it received upon its release, it’s brisk enough, the grandeur and scale hold up and the cast has just enough heft to carry it off.

It being British history and filmed in the late 1960s, you can expect to see many a James Bond bit player in supporting roles, just as every member of British Actor’s Equity turned up in the Harry Potter pictures more recently.

Here’s Keen, who took over after Bernard Lee (as “M”) died as Bond’s boss for several 1970s films. Gray was in an early Connery Bond as a bit player, and turned up as Blofeld in “Diamonds are Forever,” although he’s best remembered for singing and dancing the “Time Warp” in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Dalton would play Bond for a couple of films in the ’80s. And Hughes directed some of the “unofficial” unsanctioned 1968 “Casino Royale.”

But the oddest thing I fixated on in this viewing was the makeup scheme chosen for Harris. A famous drinker and brawler who once kept a booking on “The Dick Cavett Show”after getting pounded in a bar fight, I was mystified at what I was seeing in Harris’s closeups.

One day, he’d have what looked like bumps and injuries covered by pancake on his chin and forehead, another a busted lip that could have been a cold sore.

There are plenty of photos that show him for the unmarked matinee idol that he was in that day. What gives? Were they going for a version of “Cromwell had boils and abscesses” authenticity (entirely possible), or did the man have herpes and the occasional knock-about in the local pubs?

In any event, he’s good in the film, which does a pretty good job of walking the fence on Cromwell as a Rights of Man patriot, a gifted organizer and field commander, and a religious fanatic who hated Catholicism and recruited fellow fanatics for his New Model Army.

“Cromwell” isn’t the last word on its subject. But to this day, that complex figure has yet to generate another major motion picture that even tried.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: G, violence

Cast: Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Robert Morley, Dorothy Tutin, Charles Gray, Frank Finlay, Patrick Magee and Timothy Dalton

Credits: Written and directed by Ken Hughes. A Columbia Pictures release, on Tubi, Youtube, etc.

Running time: 2:09

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