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Directed by Bill Douglas
Produced in 1986
Main Language - English
Countries & Regions - British Film
Contemporary Drama • Contemporary Period, Costume, Historical Film • Contemporary Political Film • Contemporary British Film • Contemporary Blu-rays • Contemporary British Film • British Film Blu-rays
Mike McCahill hails this very welcome release from the BFI of a film by one of Britain's most admired directors.
Slowly but surely, the films of Bill Douglas – one of Britain’s most admired, yet most rarely screened directors – have come to be liberated from the archives. Subtitled ‘A Lanternist’s Account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and What Became of Them’, this three-hour epic from 1986 offers an immersive account of the 19th century Dorset rebels, from their first stirrings of revolt against the landowners who forced them to work back-breaking hours for decreasing recompense, to their eventual exile in the Australian wilderness.
While the church, in league with the landowners, urges its parishioners to accept their lowly lot in life and return to their labours in the surrounding fields, a series of breakaway services begin under the auspices of the charismatic George Loveless (Robin Soans), counselling his followers in the ways of self-improvement and looking out for one’s fellow man. Transportation to the Outback beckons for these upstarts, allowing each to test their faith in solidarity against the wider world.
Douglas clearly sees in the Martyrs’ struggles the origins of unionism, a subject no less relevant to the industrial actions of 2009 as it was to the Britain into which Comrades was first released. Yet if the film has something to say, it’s also supremely visual in saying it: indeed, this may be the closest any British film has come to matching the physical beauty of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, alternating as it does vast landscapes – realigning man’s relationship with the heavens – with intimate interior spaces and clever trompe-l’oeil effects.
Boasting a memorably diverse cast, Comrades is one of the starriest of our historical dramas to have gone out of circulation for any length of time: somewhere beneath the bonnets and above the neckties, you’ll spy Imelda Staunton, Michael Hordern, James Fox, Robert Stephens, Vanessa Redgrave and – most unexpectedly – a giggling Barbara Windsor and her cleavage chipping in.
A hand-crafted combination of history lesson, grass-roots politics and folk poetry, this counts as a notable rediscovery, to be filed alongside Loach’s Land and Freedom and Brownlow and Mollo’s Winstanley on any serious left-facing DVD shelf.
Mike McCahill on 1st July 2009
Author of 215 reviews
This beautiful film from Bill Douglas tells the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs - six Dorset labourers transported to Australia in the 1830s for forming a trade union. Unfolding in the pastoral haze of Dorset and the blinding light of Australia, Douglas has created a film rich with carefully layered visual illusions and nuances. With strong performances throughout, the story - a compelling account of struggle and injustice - becomes an epic tale about history, storytelling and the way we see our world.
Length: 183 mins
Cat No: BFIB1140
Format: DVD+Blu-ray Colour
- 3 discs
- Lanterna Magicka - Bill Douglas & the Secret History of Cinema (2009, 60 minutes), an insightful new documentary on Douglas' life and work
- Visions of: Comrades (2009, 15 mins), cast-members recall making the film
- Bill Douglas interviews (1978, total 33 mins), exclusive presentation of a remarkable interview in which Douglas discusses his method and creating approach to writing and directing
- Home and Away (Michael Alexander, 1974, 31 mins), charming short film co-scripted by Douglas
- News report from the set of Comrades
- Original Comrades trailer
- Fully illustrated booklet including new essay, visual materials, archive Q&A with Bill Douglas, biography, cast and credits
- PCM stereo audio.