Cromwell has King Charles's head chopped off because Charles dissolved Parliament and ruled England without. Cromwell's first act on coming into power is to dissolve Parliament and rule England without. I have often wondered how often during his half-decade as Lord Protector Ollie lay awake in bed thinking along these lines: "You know, old Charlie was right about that bunch, after all."
I first saw this film (it takes itself a little too seriously for me to call it a "movie") in London, where I was visiting at the time of its 1970 premiere. It was heralded as so totally historically accurate that one scene had to be re-shot because one of Cromwell's famous warts fell off the first time. The souvenir booklet featured a specially-written article by a respected historian on the battles. I fear that all this ultimately did it less than no service. In 1970, I was utterly steeped in that period of English history, and almost fell out of my seat laughing at the inaccuracies. It should have been heralded as "based on, rather loosely," rather than "depicting with absolute historical fidelity."
For starters, what is the Earl of Manchester doing sitting in the House of Commons? What is Cromwell's name doing on that infamous list of five members whom the king comes in person to arrest? Worry about accuracy with Cromwell's warts and not about accuracy as to his never actually having been on that list?
Now that both the film and myself are nearly half a century older, and my interest in the Martyr King and his world reawakened, I watch "Cromwell" again with appreciation for what it is, rather than what it was falsely advertised to be. Yes, Mancester belongs in the House of Lords: but putting him there prominently visible in the House of Commons scenes helped pad out a rich part for Robert Morley as the kind of corrupt and cowardly bully we love to hate. No, Cromwell's name was not one of the five: but pretending it was allowed the filmmakers to point up the conflicts of their drama with a little added tense dialog that makes for a rather powerful scene. And while they give Cromwell a famous short pre-battle prayer that was in fact prayed by a Royalist, at least it is authentic to the English Civil War. In short, provided you no more expect a history lesson than you can get from one of Shakespeare's "historical" plays, you may find this worth watching. And where it does look researched, as with the scenes of the king's execution, it looks both convincing and visually luxurious.
I have long been a fan of England's Charles I, who tried so hard to be at once a good man and a good king, failing rather notoriously in the "king" part, but quite possibly succeeding pretty well in the "man" part. As both man and king, he appears never to have forgiven himself for signing Strafford's death warrant -- the filmmakers may have suggested this, but so lightly I'm not sure I would have guessed it had I not read the EIKON BASILIKA and various biographical studies. And as king, Charles certainly appears to play falsely. But I could not see that Cromwell as depicted here really does much better in that department, seeming as he does to shape his strict sense of personal and public honor very much to his own interpretations and impressions of the immediate moment -- though no doubt he considers this as struggling with his conscience and his God.
The film I think makes Cromwell a bit too prominent throughout the whole Civil War period from the Parliament of 1640 on. And I couldn't helpt but be amused when he brings back a new Puritan army whom he must have spent as much time training to sing as to fight, their marching-to-battle chorale sounding -- at least to my poor and unreliable ears -- so much better than that of the earlier sorry ragtag of Parliamentary forces. I'm not sure whether their singing was a practical necessity to make them better soldiers, or a dramatic device to let the audience know at once that this time they were going to win.
But Charles I, especially as portrayed to absolute perfection by the great Alec Guinness, slight stammer and all, is such an engaging figure, that for dramatic balance they almost had to focus strongly on Cromwell from the outset. And since our own world has been shaped much more by Cromwell's ideas of government than by those of Charles, it was only natural to make him the eponymous "hero." Although watching it again (twice so far), I cannot feel that it in any way shows a struggle between "good guys" and "bad guys," but rather between two sides struggling equally to meet its notion that "God fights for US."
For myself, I regard this DVD as a keeper, if only for Sir Alec Guinness as King Charles.