Keith Allen, Dave Atkins, Stephen Bateman, Katy Behean, Mark Brown, Michael Clark, Lynette Curran, Alex Norton / Fiction / English
Bill Douglas' little-seen, visionary "poor man's epic", in a new print.
Bill Douglas’ movie Comrades feels like the light from a distant star. Since its short but incandescent release in 1987, it has been virtually unseeable. It was so long in the making, so splendid and then – almost at once – so hard to find, that it was possible to wonder if it had ever been made at all, and to suspect that memories of having seen it were just a cinephile reverie. Even when it came out, there was something distant about Comrades. It spoke of the beginning of the era of trade unionism – the emergence of solidarity – at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was attempting to stage the high drama of its ending. If the subjects of the film – six labourers from Tolpuddle in Devon who formed a society to protest the reduction of wages, and were convicted and sent to Australia for it – could have looked out from the screen upon which Douglas depicted them to the scarred landscapes of Orgreave and Polmaise, they’d have been shocked indeed. Filmically, too, Comrades was against its times. It was completed in the same year as Top Gun, when MTV and non-linear editing had made mainstream cinema a stylistic whirligig, yet it was classical in pace and had old school luminosity, as if D W Griffith’s DoP Billy Bitzer had had a hand in it. The Tolpuddle events predated cinema by sixty years, but Douglas had Alex Norton play a diorama showman, a lanternist, a photographer and a silhouettist, men whose jobs prefigured and yearned for cinema. It was the kind of yearning we last saw in wee Jamie in Douglas’ Trilogy – pentup, waiting for times to get better, playing the long game. When Comrades was first released, there was much talk of its production problems: Ismail Merchant was producer for a while, but fell out with Douglas. Such offscreen stories are indeed interesting, but they should be put aside now in order to welcome back one of the great, lost objects of modern cinema.
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