Digging the Past


Given that Kevin Brownlow is a wonderful historian as well as a master cinema restorationist, it seems more than appropriate that his own “lost” movies— made in collaboration with production designer Andrew Mollo— are among the most painstaking and resourceful no-budget historical films that have ever been produced.

Neither It Happened Here (1964) nor Winstanley (1975) have been shown in these parts for years— their existence should be both an inspiration to and a criticism of American indies. The more sensational of the two, It Happened Here posits a German victory in World War II’s Battle of Britain and imagines what a Nazi occupation might have been like— complete with underground resistance, civilian massacres, civil strife, torch-lit rallies, Jewish ghettos, and organized euthanasia, all seen through the eyes of an apolitical heroine who tries to pull her life together by becoming a nurse.

Shot on weekends, eight years in production, made for about $20,000 with nonactors and borrowed equipment, It Happened Here was originally envisioned by the then teenaged Brownlow as a sort of Hammer horror flick about a Nazi Britain. Thanks in part to his partner Mollo’s fanatical concern with historical accuracy, however, it became something else. The most remarkable thing about this account of everyday fascism is that it has no period footage. The 1940s are evoked entirely by Mollo’s design and Brownlow’s exceedingly clever use of montage, close-ups, and sound.

It Happened Here has a quasi-documentary quality that would prove an inspiration for filmmaker Peter Watkins, who soon after shocked the world with The War Game, his mock newsreel account of a nuclear holocaust. Some aspects of the movie actually were documentary— the presence of the bona fide British Nazis, whom Brownlow dressed as storm troopers and filmed venting their anti-Semitic race hatred, was so “real” that British Jews organized to have that scene cut.

As much attention as It Happened Here garnered, it took Brownlow and Mollo the better part of a decade to raise funds for their second feature. Winstanley is nearly as impressive in evoking the civil war of the mid-1600s— again using a mix of close-up detail and near-fanatical authenticity, with much dialogue drawn from period writings.

Led by the Christian radical Gerard Winstanley, an amiably wild-eyed enthusiast, a group of impoverished peasants sets up a commune on public lands. These Diggers, as they were contemptuously called, are attacked both for trespassing and occupying land used to graze cattle. It’s a class confrontation that establishes an ongoing rhythm of persecution and defense. As a study of primitive, rural communism, the movie makes a fascinating precursor to Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Inheritors and, as in It Happened Here, Brownlow filled his cast with actual ideologues; the anti-clerical Ranter who challenges Winstanley was the head of a contemporary commune that called themselves the New Diggers.

Although modest enough to make even the cheapest Hollywood movie seem grandiose, Winstanley suggests the antiauthoritarian westerns of the early ’70s. The greater its period fidelity, the more it suggests a gaggle of hippie radicals somehow transported out of time.