The BFI seems to have taken it upon themselves to remind us of our Working-class history this month. Along with Brownlow and Mollo's superlative "Winstanley" (1975), "Comrades" turns our attention to another piece of semi-socilaist history; That of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, seven men who created a "Friendly Society" to protest the lowering of general wages during the early 1830s. Although the Combination Acts of 1824/5 legalised what we would consider to be a Trade Union, landowner James Frampton incurred an old 18th-Century act against illegal oaths to have the men arrested, tried and deported to Australia. The men bar one were released in 1836 and moved to London, Ontario. Their trials and tribulations remain in the forefront of the history of rights in the UK, and they deserve an appropriate film to celebrate them.
So how does Bill Douglas's film stand up to scrutiny? Douglas had already completed his Childhood trilogy ("My Childhood" (1972), "My Ain Folk" (1973) and "My Way Home" (1978)) which put him in good stead to write and direct a working-class hero themed film. And yes, in most aspects the man succeeded. An admirable cast which feature such mainstays as Keith Allen, James Fox and Freddie Jones accurately portray the wronged men, and although the cinematography sometimes degenerates into Chocolate-Box gaudiness (Was it an attempt to do a Terence Malick?) the colours are vivid and the contrast between rainy Dorset and parched New South Wales is masterfully portrayed. And yes, the inevitable Romanticism does ooze through at points in order to stir emotion, it's mostly tastefully done and at a low budget. Bravo.
What of the package? Hell, this is the BFI and they never ever do things in halves (Bless them). Spread across two discs you have the documentaries "Lanterna Magica - Bill Douglas and the Secret History of Cinema" and "Visions of Comrades", Michael Alexander's "Home and Away" that was scripted by Douglas. Added to this are interviews and a lavish booklet containing essasy regarding Douglas and the film. I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth (and who the Hell is?) you owe it to yourself to watch how the rights you take for granted materialised. Not out of thin air, let me tell you that.