A FIELD IN ENGLAND is an incredibly brilliant and haunting film. While it may look like a psychedelic horror movie, like WITCH FINDER GENERAL, in reality it is a very straightforward film based very directly on the English Civil War itself.
O'Neill, the Irish alchemist who tries to enslave Whitehead and his friends, is clearly based on the English monarch Charles I. Like Charles, O'Neill is an arrogant man who claims not only total earthly power, but the right to pass judgment on men and to interfere with the cosmos itself. Just as Charles I saw himself as chosen by God (not the people) to rule as an absolute monarch, so O'Neill sees himself as a god on earth.
Whitehead, the timid religious scholar who attempts to bring O'Neill to justice, represents the Puritan conscience of England. His evolution in the film from a meek, submissive cowardly man to a military hero parallels the way the Puritans themselves evolved from a hunted, despised minority to a powerful army of spiritual and political authority, able to recreate England in their own image.
What the movie does is not just to imitate history but to reflect on its deeper meaning. Notice how the earthy, ignorant common soldiers switch their allegiance in the course of the nightmarish conflict in the field. At first they feel great contempt for Whitehead, the Puritan. They ridicule his "soft hands" and laugh when he is degraded and tortured and forced to run on a leash like a dog. In the same way, the English of Shakespeare's time (like Shakespeare himself) tended to regard the Puritans as a joke. But over time, as O'Neill proves more and more arrogant and unstable, the soldiers (like the English common people) begin to respond to Whitehead's efforts to awaken their sense of justice and their own moral dignity. By the end of the film, even the lowliest and most ignorant of the soldiers is willing to sacrifice his own life in Whitehead's cause, and Whitehead himself has changed from a pitiful outsider to the leader of the tiny band of "rebels." The fall of O'Neil parallels the fall of Charles I, just as the rise of Whitehead mirrors the success of the Puritan revolution.
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