Top 10 17th Century Films
By James Oliver
The 17th century was when the old world died and the modern world began to take shape; in Britain, they called a halt to the middle ages by killing a king, while in Europe they fought wars that still define our epoch.
An eventful time, then; no wonder it's inspired so many movies. The platform-wide release of Ben Wheatley's British civil war psyche-out A Field in England seems a great reason to cast an eye over the best examples.
NB. We've limited ourselves to choosing from titles currently available in the UK
The list that follows is largely concerned with British history but how could we ignore this? Although written in the Nineteenth century, Edmond Rostand's play is set firmly in the Seventeenth. It's been an inspiration to many filmmakers but this is surely the definitive take, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and starring Gérard Depardieu in arguably his greatest performance. It's splendid, handsome entertainment: no wonder it was such a sensation upon original release.
No one's going to accuse Ben Wheatley of making cosy heritage pictures; here, the director of Kill List dives into the past for what might be the world's very first psychedelic costume drama; set during the civil war, it concerns a band of deserters captured by an Alchemist and forced to dig for buried treasure in the titular field. A field that's covered in most peculiar mushrooms. That everyone has consumed. This is history with dirt under its fingernails and a mad glint in its eye.
Although certain historical allowances have to be made – had they known what World War Two might bring, no doubt the creators of this 1935 movie wouldn't have shown a Belgium town (even one in 1616) happily collaborating with an invading force – this is a lovely little film. The invaders are Spanish and they're dissuaded from rape and pillage by the charm and the guile of the women of the town, while the men-folk waste their time with foolish strategies. A little treat from the Golden Age of French filmmaking.
The most purely entertaining film on our list and one of the best swashbucklers this country ever produced. It's a quasi-Scarlet Pimpernel yarn, with charming cavalier George Baker trying to spirit the future Charles II out of the country from under the beady eye of Marius Goring. Director David MacDonald evidently prepared by studying the great Errol Flynn adventure films and while this isn't quite in their class, there's enough flashing blades, unexpected peril and last-minute escapes to make for superb thigh-slapping fun.
Peter Greenaway's first feature and still (probably) his best, an art-house enigma set in 1694, featuring murder, blackmail, adultery and the most extravagant wigs this side of Elton John. It looks gorgeous and it's topped off with Michael Nyman's Henry Purcell-influenced score. If it ain't baroque, don't fix it...
And we can't move on without having at least a little bit Michael Nyman's music from the film:
Overlooked for many years, most likely because of the catchpenny title that the producers foisted upon it, this is now recognised as one of the best – if strangest – of British horror films. It's set in rural England; after a farmer ploughs up some unholy remains, the village children are apparently possessed by the devil. It's a film with a potent, unsettling atmosphere, contrasting the bucolic beauty of the countryside with the horror churning within.
Most films about the British Civil Wars of the 1640's concentrate on what happened; Winstanley is one of the few – maybe the only – to examine the ideologies that were such crucial catalysts for those events. It's the story of Gerrard Winstanley, the instigator of the Digger movement (essentially proto-communists), whose bold experiment was deemed a challenge to the new Roundhead establishment. It's also one of only two films directed by Andrew Mollo and Kevin Brownlow; both established great things in their subsequent careers but it's a tragedy for British film they didn't get to make more features.
The real Matthew Hopkins was an Essex lawyer who exploited the tumult of the civil war years to tour East Anglia and murder any woman he said was a witch. Michael Reeves' film depicts this despicable man as driven more by sexual sadism than any concern about black magic, which sounds about right. Vincent Price (imposed by producers) makes no attempt to mask his American accent but it's still the best performance he ever gave, in one of the very best films in which he appeared.
2. Day of Wrath
So far, this list has cast religion in a very poor light and now we come to the ultimate expression of that; it's set in a stern Danish Protestant community, one which has no tolerance for those who deviate from its rules – so woe-betide those accused of witchcraft. When the (much younger) wife of the local priest falls in love with her step-son, we can be in no doubt where it will end. Director Carl Dreyer finds compassion – or at least empathy – for all involved; that somehow makes the human cost all the worse.
May I make so bold as to suggest that this is Terrence Malick's masterpiece? Not to mention one of the best films of recent years, as well. It's the story of everyone's favourite indigenous American princess, Pochahontas (although she's never named as such); she saves Cap'n John Smith, just like the Disney film tells us, but slowly becomes estranged from her culture. It's about America, how the foundation of the country would define what it would become and it's beautiful, in every sense. Here's the opening...
...and the ending.
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Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990
Rappeneau excels at action-packed, scenically beautiful costume dramas (The Scoun...
Brownlow & Mollo's second film, after It Happened Here, Winstanley sees them recreating the story...
Piers Haggard, 1970
Classic British horror set in a superstitious 17th century England. The discovery of furry remain...
Ben Wheatley, 2013
A monochrome psychedelic trip into magic and madness set during the English Civil War and directe...
Michael Reeves, 1968
Michael Reeves' classic British horror drama is et In England during the time of Cromwell and see...
Terrence Malick, 2005
Epic adventure set amidst the first encounter of European and Native American cultures during the...