The release of Comrades, an epic film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, on DVD 23 years after it was made is great news for people who have been unable to see it until now.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of 19th century Dorset farm labourers who were transported to Australia for seven years of hard labour after they formed a union to fight falling wages.
The film is introduced as “a lanternist’s account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and what became of them”. The regular appearance of this lanternist gives Comrades an air of unreality.
The film is dramatic and beautifully shot. Sometimes it seems more like a play—with characters not only acknowledging the viewers but also directly addressing us.
It shows the utter poverty that workers lived in and the bareness of their lives. Their homes have whitewashed walls and little else inside, stone floors, rough sheets and sacking for pillows.
This stands in contrast with the conditions of the landowner. One of the first shots is of his house.
The camera pans across the windows, showing the unnecessary size of it—only a couple of windows are lit, while the rest of the house sits in unused darkness.
Some may find the first part of the film hard going. It can seem that one random scene follows another.
Much of the time relatively little is happening—scenes of communities meeting to eat and making small talk, mothers talking to upset children, women talking to one another in their homes.
But this shows the reality of people’s lives—much of the time not very much is happening. It also means that the severity and monotony of life is weaved in quite subtly.
So workers are shown toiling in the fields, raking the earth, picking vegetables, cutting hay and feeding animals. The hard, physical nature of the work is clear.
It is martyr-to-be George Loveless who first introduces the idea that falling wages can be challenged, in a somewhat amusing scene.
He asks a husband and wife who make chairs why they don’t try and sell them for more money. “People would just go to someone else,” is the response.
“But supposing all you carpenters were to ask for more?” he asks, bringing incredulous looks as people digest an idea that has obviously never occurred to them before.
The film doesn’t portray life as all miserable. People frequently find things to make them happy, despite their conditions.
The humour in the film can sometimes be quite cheeky. For instance, Loveless remarks, “We move about so little... I’d like to travel one day.” The viewer, of course, knows what lies in store for him.
There are some particularly poignant scenes. When the workers collect their wages, one elderly worker, Thomas Stanfield, tells the bosses there must be some mistake as he should be paid nine shillings.
He is told to take it or leave it.
The sense of injustice at the bosses’ callousness is heightened when the person on the receiving end is an old man.
Wages continue to fall. After being promised eight shillings, the bosses try to pay them six. Finally, George Loveless leads the workers out and they strike.
Once the struggle begins, the pace of the film speeds up. In a very short space of time, those charged with organising a union are arrested and displayed in chains in the street.
We learn of their looming fate when a child asks her mother, “What does transportation mean?”
There is an outstanding contrast between the rain and mist of Devon and the baking earth of Australia. The brutality of life for the prisoners and the sadistic, warped guards who watch over them are very well portrayed.
Yet even here people’s spirits have not been broken.
The film shows acts of resistance—the prisoners eventually kill their barbaric guard, another damages a carriage and lets it loose, putting its rich occupant in bandages.
Despite the awful punishments, the men hold onto their dignity and their ideals.
The film ends with a welcome home celebration for six of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
An empty chair marks the fact that the seventh was not released. There is an inspiring sense that, in spite of everything, it is the Martyrs who have won, not their rulers.
The British Film Institute (BFI) has released the Comrades DVD. It comes with an extra disc that includes a documentary about the director, Bill Douglas, interviews and the short film Home and Away, which was scripted by Douglas.
It also includes a booklet with a biography of Douglas, essays on the significance of Comrades, an interview with Douglas and scene notes.
Comrades is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop for £22.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk