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Although repeatedly told by skittish studio executives and potential backers that the days of the big historical epic were over, writer-director Ken Hughes finally got to put his nearly decade-long obsession with Oliver Cromwell on screen in 1970 in Cromwell, a lavish production devoted to the life of the famous anti-Royalist and his short reign (1653-1658) as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. Taking substantial liberties with many of the facts about England's civil war period, Hughes's film portrays Cromwell as a reluctant rebel drawn into a distasteful struggle for the sake of the "common people."
Hughes became hooked on the subject after reading a biography of Cromwell in the early 60s. Over the next nine years, he read more than 120 books about him and toured England in his spare time between film jobs visiting historic sites and conducting research in museums and record offices. Hughes was determined to pull together a tragic drama that would have "all the haunting inevitability of Greek tragedy." His dream became possible when he met Irving Allen, a producer who shared his obsession with Cromwell. By the time principal photography began in the spring of 1969, they had poured their mutual interest into a huge cinematic undertaking, with more than 200 workers at Shepperton Studios building the largest outdoor set ever constructed for an English-made film, a two-acre recreation of London's Parliament Square as it looked in 1642, complete with House of Commons, Westminster Palace and Abbey, and roughly 50 other buildings. Close to 4,000 costumes were made, 16,000 separate props items found or made, and thousands of wigs ordered from all over Europe.
Hughes's care was not limited to mere period detail. He also secured the services of some of England's most respected actors, among them Robert Morley, Dorothy Tutin, Timothy Dalton, Patrick Magee, and Frank Finlay. For the part of doomed King Charles I, Hughes went straight to the top of Britain's acting A-list and hired Sir Alec Guinness. For the title role, one of the hottest actors in the business at the time was campaigning heavily for the part-Richard Harris, fresh off the successes of Camelot (1967) and a hit pop song, "MacArthur Park."
Harris was perhaps the least likely candidate for the role of the Puritan leader who, according to many historians, carried out near genocide in Ireland. Although a fierce Irish nationalist, Harris saw past the historical circumstances and became intrigued with Cromwell as "a symbol of integrity, anxious to reform society," as the actor described him. Harris insisted it wasn't necessary for an actor to strictly believe in the character he was playing. Instead Harris drew inspiration from Cromwell's idealistic nature, his goal to take the country out of aristocratic hands, and his "rigorous self-discipline," a trait Harris admired.
Self-discipline, however, was not really Harris's strong suit. By this point in his career, directors who hired him usually added time to their shooting schedules to cover the inevitable days when his heavy drinking made it impossible for him to work. On Cromwell, however, the actor exceeded even his own reputation, going so far off the deep end (and immersing himself so completely in the character), that he crossed the line into a complete mental breakdown upon seeing Guinness in costume for the beheading of King Charles. Convinced it was happening for real, Harris went hysterical, desperately trying to stop the "execution." He had to be heavily tranquilized and filming suspended for 18 hours while he slept off his momentary nervous breakdown.
In addition to the massive set at Shepperton, Cromwell was also shot in Spain, where Hughes and Allen were able to secure locations and ample trained cavalry and infantry extras for the huge battle scenes.
Critics were equally divided over Cromwell on its theatrical release. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times complained that "Ken Hughes' direction doesn't seem adequate for the epic form" and on the performances, he noted, that Harris "doesn't inhabit the role or even seem to care much about it. Even worse is Alec Guinness, as King Charles, who is so concerned with doing a character turn that he doesn't do a character." Variety, on the other hand, stated that "Richard Harris and Alec Guinness, respectively, give powerhouse performances" and "The battle scenes...at Nazeby and Edgehill are excitingly drawn." Regardless of what the reviewers thought, the most important critics - the moviegoers - stayed away in droves and the film was a financial disappointment. Cromwell did, however, score two Oscar® nominations - for Best Score (by Frank Cordell) and for Best Costume Design (by Vittorio Nino Novarese), which won in the latter category.
Director: Ken Hughes
Producer: Irving Allen
Screenplay: Ken Hughes
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editing: Bill Lenny
Art Direction: Herbert Westbrook
Original Music: Frank Cordell
Cast: Richard Harris (Cromwell), Alec Guinness (King Charles I), Robert Morley (Earl of Manchester), Dorothy Tutin (Queen Henrietta Maria), Timothy Dalton (Prince Rupert), Frank Finlay (John Carter).
by Rob Nixon