Last night we watched Oliver Cromwell, with Alec Guinness (1970), recommended to us by one of our Air Force friends. It was great. The costumes were tremendous: some of the scenes at St. James court looked like a baroque painting come to life. There were absolutely no women anywhere except for Cromwell’s wife looking concerned, and the Queen giving bad advice with a sinister look on her face; so that was ok. The battle scenes were good (from the point of view of people who try not to watch violent movies); you could see how the different parts of each army were moving, and pick out some tactical errors on either side. The violence was enough that it felt real, but not bad enough to need to kick the 9-year-old out of the room. The language, I think, was acceptable. Cromwell and others were swearing, but with the kind of intensity and solemnity that makes it not bad language but serious statement: it’s ok to say that an evil man deserves damnation, and going by the Psalmist praising those who swear in the name of the true God, I think James’ injunction against useless swearing does not include calling God to witness one’s intentions. Towards the end, Cromwell and the other Parliamentarians began insulting each other pretty badly, but in 17th century language, and again very seriously.
I enjoyed the fact that the script apparently quoted real speeches and letters a good deal, so there were bits from Cromwell’s most famous speeches, and from King Charles. The script was well-written: slightly archaic formulations and vocabulary, but not as bad as Gods and Generals. I’m not thoroughly familiar with the English Civil War, but as far as I could tell, the movie gave a pretty accurate and fair account. It showed Cromwell’s reluctance to be involved in Civil War, then his final turning against the King because Charles was dealing treacherously in peace negotiations, secretly inviting Catholic armies into England. At the same time, Charles was seen to be relatively well-intentioned, but foolish enough to listen to bad advisors (his wife, Strafford, Laud), who led him on into more and more tyrannical actions, and finally the unthinkable alliance with foreign Catholics.
The only bit that I thought could have been better done was the exact involvement of religious leaders. There were maybe three scenes involving this: Early on, Cromwell walks into church, full of Puritans in black, brown and white, and sees a red cloth on the altar, a gold cross, candles, etc. He becomes furious, starts reciting the law against graven images, and throws it all around. Later, when the Parliamentary army is first mustering, the old priest arrives on a wagon, waving his arms and shouting, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We are doing the work of the Lord!” sounding more like a modern charismatic or fundamentalist than a real Puritan. Immediately after this scene, a high-church priest was blessing the Royalist army, and Prince Charles was praying the psalm that calls down defeat on “those that rise up against me.” I thought it would have been fairer to the priests on both sides to show their serious theological and scriptural reasons for supporting one side or the other. But I loved the Parliamentarians marching into battle singing Psalms, with banners of verses and the names of God. Maybe some people would see that as eery, but I thought it was beautiful. That’s what those Psalms are for, after all. How much better to enter battle thus, than like Prince Rupert, carrying a poodle till the last moment, mocking, gleefully looking forward to the carnage.
The movie winds up, after the execution of King Charles, with Cromwell being offered the crown (“England needs a king; someone has to control Parliament,” says Henry Ireton), which he laughs at, and kicks the envoys out of his house. But later he returns to Parliament, to find it full of corruption and self-serving, no concern for the people. He uses his loyal soldiers to throw the members out, and seats himself as Lord Protector; the use of force being a clear echo of the King’s earlier bid to rule Parliament by force. Ever since the middle of the movie, Cromwell has had to storm into Parliament and coerce the half-hearted lords and cowardly members into taking the necessary action to support the army, or to prevent them from making a treaty with the King that gives away all the army’s successes. So you can start a revolution in the name of republican government, the people ruling through representatives. But when those representatives won’t do what you know is right/best, what do you do? Cromwell found himself forced to take up a pretty autocratic style of government, in the name of overthrowing tyranny. And obviously, by his understanding, he was doing a better job of ruling England than either the King or the Parliament. So is a democratic republic really a sustainable form of government? Isn’t bound, sooner or later, to become bogged down with lifetime politicians who care only about their own interests, not at all about the interests of the people they’re supposed to be serving? And how can you fix that? A few small groups of people may care desperately about it, but the majority of the population probably won’t. So if most of the people don’t care, how bad is it? But if you think it’s bad enough (maybe the rulers are breaking enough laws) that you think it needs to be fixed, how are you going to do it from a minority position?
Conclusion: a benevolent dictatorship is, after all, the best form of government.
Query, how to choose the dictator. . . I guess we’ll have to stick with what we’ve got.
Watch the movie. It presents the dilemma more forcefully than I can.