Winstanley, dir. Kevin Brownlow & Andrew Mollo (BFI)

Ringing Roger, September 2009

In April 1649, not long after the execution of Charles I by the Parliamentarians, Gerrard* Winstanley led a band of about forty people, impoverished and dispossessed, onto common land on St George’s Hill in Surrey. There they cultivated crops and established a community of ‘Diggers’. An admirer of Oliver Cromwell and an enthusiastic supporter of the English Revolution, Winstanley had expected to witness the restitution of the land to the English people. Seeing no evidence for that yet, he trusted that his own community of ‘Diggers’ would show the way.

His inspiration was the Christ who preached universal love, and whom he believed to dwell in the hearts and minds of humankind rather than in some celestial realm; his conviction was that, with Satan’s monarchy having been overthrown, ‘King Jesus’ would make the earth ‘a common treasury’.

Proclaiming a ‘Law of Freedom’ which would ‘turn the world upside down’, Winstanley found himself opposed by both the local landowner and the local parson. Indeed, it was they, supported by Cromwell’s own army, who forcibly suppressed the Diggers’ venture after it had survived less than two years. Yet even in defeat, Winstanley retained his religious faith and his apocalyptic vision. A leading figure of the ‘inner light’ tradition in English Christianity, he reportedly died a Quaker.

Brownlow & Mollo’s austere black-and-white film, first released in 1975, has now been carefully restored by the British Film Institute and issued as a DVD. It’s not a film for relaxing with on a Saturday evening: it’s more a film for sitting up straight and concentrating on, preferably on a Sunday. It’s a powerful history lesson; it’s also a breath of spiritual fresh air. If you’re a Christian, it asks you: what kind of world would it be if we actually lived according to Christ’s teaching? If you’re not, it makes you think again about religion being nothing more than a distraction from ‘the real world’. Either way, this film reminds us that Winstanley is one of the most challenging of English visionaries and (as it includes generous quotations from his pamphlets) one of the finest of English writers.

[*Yes, this is the correct spelling!]

Laurence Coupe