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Sometimes, the most interesting aspect of a film is accidental. Cromwell, a late entry in the cycle of historical dramas out of Hollywood and Britain in the ’60s, is a case in point. While a dictatorial prig might seem an odd choice to be the center of a movie epic, the film presents an intelligent, if greatly simplified dramatization of the struggle between the English Parliament and Britain’s King Charles I (Alec Guinness). It just happens that the filmmakers’ approach has some rather peculiar consequences.

Cromwell (Richard Harris) is presented as a principled idealist who only rebels when he feels traditional English freedoms are being trampled by the duplicitous Stuarts. The film depicts him as a nascent republican, whose dictatorial behavior was necessary to lay the groundwork for democracy. Yet, despite this sympathetic (and highly debatable) interpretation, and despite being made in a conservatively prestigious and respectful style, the film inadvertently makes Cromwell look like a raving, half-mad fanatic. By the conclusion, Cromwell is hoarse from all the speeches he’s had to make, a lonely, worn-out husk in breeches, still grimly telling everyone else what to do.

On the other hand, if Cromwell is a righteous monster, Charles I is no worse than a slightly confused mediocrity, a weak, but very sympathetic individual, all too human in his failings. It is that central inversion of sympathy that makes Cromwell interesting, for instead of presenting a simple conflict in which all emotional identification can be taken for granted, the “bad guy” ends up more appealing than the “good” one. The filmmakers may think they’re presenting a respectful demonstration of Cromwell’s role in the creation of representative government, but much of what they show is how easily democracy degenerates into oligarchy, and how even the most principled individuals can commit barbarities when they are convinced they are right. Far from an unambiguously positive look at budding liberalism, in other words, Cromwell accidentally demonstrates the capacity of power to consume all ideals and values.

As with most British period dramas, Cromwell gives priority to the actors and the writing, supported by archaeologically correct costumes and decor. Harris isn’t exactly Cromwell, but he’s never quite Harris either, possibly because it is impossible to come to terms with a character so inhuman. To sympathize with him would be like warming to a statue. Guinness, on the other hand, is utterly convincing as Charles, right down to the way he sits when defending himself during his trial. When the King gently reminds his younger children that he is about to be executed, for example, his delicacy shows he recognizes how they have been blighted by his failings. It’s a moment of tragic, irredeemable loss.

That we can feel such sympathy fully knowing Charles has betrayed his country testifies to how Cromwell demonstrates the frightening power of a galvanized will. That exposure of ruthless sanctimony at the core of idealism may not be intended, but it is what makes Cromwell worth watching.

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