The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”
There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.
Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.»Michael Chabon, The Wes Anderson Collection
A Field in England (2013)
THERE ARE NO SIDES HERE, FRIEND.
by Karin L. Kross
“What do you see, friend?”
In many reactions to Ben Wheatley’s seventeenth-century trip movie A Field In England—including my own, the first time I watched it—there’s a common theme of what the hell did I just see? What are you supposed to make of the rowan-wood stake and rope required to drag a man out of a fairy ring—an enchanted ring of mushrooms—especially since you might not even know that was what was going on until you read an interview with Wheatley? What happens during and after the intense, hallucinatory mushroom-trip sequence? Why are dead characters apparently coming back to life? This is the director they tapped to direct the first two episodes of the next season of Doctor Who? What’s going on?
One interpretation—for which J.J. Abrams and Lost probably have something to answer, and which Wheatley has danced around a bit—is that the whole thing is taking place in Purgatory, and that the cowardly scholar Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the deserting soldiers Friend (Richard Glover) and Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), and the menacing alchemist O’Neil (Michael Smiley) and his henchman Cutler (Ryan Pope) are enacting some kind of mutual and self-inflicted punishment. It’s a convenient explanation for Whitehead’s visions of a dark planet filling the sky, the apparent resurrection of Friend, and any number of other bizarre, not-easily-glossed moments.
But maybe it’s a little too simple a reading for such a compelling, suggestive film, one that inhabits so many different types of liminal, borderland spaces. The field itself is untilled land that lies between the chaos of a brutal battlefield and the peace of a rural alehouse. The men who occupy this field themselves exist in a historical space between science and magic, between blind obedience to an absolute power and a government defined by the will of the people. They are pushed deeper into the gap between the real and the imaginary by a batch of hallucinogenic mushrooms. In seeking the secrets of this field, they draw down evil upon themselves, but it is no more or less than the evil that they have already brought in with them.
“My master predicts that impending events will stagger the monarch and kingdom.”
The seventeenth century and the English Civil Wars have yielded a fairly striking harvest in British cinema: A Field in England has amongst its antecedents Kevin Brownlow’s documentary-style Winstanley and the horror films Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. This is one of those transitional periods in European history: neither the Renaissance nor the Enlightenment, a time of enormously complicated turmoil. This can make these periods difficult to teach or summarize. If you came up through the American educational system like I did, it’s entirely possible that you might not have known until fairly late that England had a civil war—or more correctly, three civil wars, fought in fairly rapid succession between 1642 and 1651. In brief, they were a series of conflicts over the governance of England, fought between the supporters of King Charles I, who backed Charles and his belief in the king’s divine right to rule and absolute power, and Parliament and its supporters, who sought to invest more power in a representative form of government (depending on who you asked and when, either a constitutional monarchy or a true republic).
Those interested in the details would do well to start with episodes 1-16 of Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast; such discussions are beyond the scope of what we’re about here. We’re less interested in the political and military movements of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads—or even what sides our characters are on—than with the social situation created by the wars. To borrow a phrase that has gotten quite a lot of use with regard to this subject, it was a period in which the ordinary citizen would have believed the world was turned upside down.
These tumultuous years contributed toward a climate of wildly disparate and strongly held beliefs, both religious and civil. In this era, people like the lecherous and avaricious title character of Witchfinder General could leverage a genuine fear of witchcraft for personal gain. There was an actual faction in the government at this time known as the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that the war was paving the way for the rule of Christ Himself on Earth. In a dramatic arc of social mobility, Oliver Cromwell was a fairly ordinary gentleman of good family who rose to become Lord Protector of England, king in all but name. Meanwhile, activist Gerrard Winstanley preached a kind of Christian communism that held that God intended the Earth to be “a common treasury for all”—you can see how that turned out if you watch Winstanley, a beautiful, spare film that draws heavily on his writings to tell the story of the failed Diggers settlement on St George’s Hill in 1649, and which Wheatley has cited as an influence on A Field in England. It was a messy era of history, full of little insurgencies and revolutionary movements and cults, in which the faith of the average man or woman in Church and State was shaken and broken down. It’s a perfect time, in other words, for the highest and strangest drama.
“The world is turned upside down, Whitehead, and so is its pockets. Yes, make a note of that, Cutler, for my memoirs and recollections.”
Winstanley opens with a scene of pitched battle between Parliamentary and Royalist forces; the opening of A Field in England might be taking place on the other side of a hedgerow from that very battle. References to Cromwell’s victory over the Welsh at Pembroke and to the King place the action of A Field in England in 1648, during the First Civil War and before Charles’s execution in January 1649. Whitehead, a nervous scholar with a hobby in lacemaking, escapes from a battle, pursued by a mercenary who curses him for his cowardice and his failure in an unnamed mission. But the mercenary takes a pike through the chest and Whitehead falls in with a trio of deserters from both sides of the battle—simple Friend, sardonic Jacob, and enigmatic Cutler.
The quartet set out across a field with the promise of an alehouse where they might rest, get a drink, meet some women. Instead they are waylaid: first by a meal of psychedelic mushrooms found in the field and prepared by Cutler—of which Whitehead pointedly does not partake—and second by an Irishman named O’Neil, who turns out to be the object of Whitehead’s mission. O’Neil has stolen some papers from the learned gentleman of Norwich who is their master. Rather than arresting O’Neil, however, Whitehead falls under O’Neil’s power instead, his own weak will forced into subservience as O’Neil and Cutler force compel Whitehead, Friend, and Jacob to search the field for a buried treasure—an errand that will not turn out well for anyone.
“If you do not cease, we may be blasted by an ill planet.”
A Field in England can take place in no other time than the peculiar borderline years of the English Civil War, and knowing a bit about it can help a great deal in unpacking one’s confusion. It helps to know, for instance, that Wheatley intended the highly stylized still tableaux that punctuate the film to echo the stilted postures of seventeenth-century woodcuts. And when you realize just how tightly science and magic are married in this world, your understanding of the film can change dramatically. This is a time where the supernatural is just as real to people as the gout, hemorrhoids, and venereal ulcers afflicting Jacob.
Take Whitehead—by the standards of his era he is something of a scientist, having knowledge of “physick” such that he can diagnose Jacob’s astounding array of diseases and afflictions and offer a sort of herbal poultice as a treatment. At the same time, Whitehead notes in perfect seriousness the “angel” that Cutler wears, a coin indicating that he has been touched by the King as a divine cure for scrofula. As well, Whitehead is also an astrologer and a kind of seer, whose gifts in this regard are regarded by O’Neil—despite his overwhelming contempt for the other man—to be greater than his own, and that’s why O’Neil puts Whitehead to some unspeakable ordeal that turns him briefly into a kind of human scenthound, racing through the field on the end of a rope to sniff out the treasure that is supposedly buried there.
To survive and escape O’Neil’s malign influence, Whitehead must overcome his cowardice and his faltering, blind obedience. In this world where the rational and the mystical blur into indistinction, the way out comes through psychedelics. Whitehead devours handfuls of the mushrooms he forwent earlier, and the resulting visions grant him the strength to confront his oppressor. The wind that strikes down O’Neil’s tent while somehow leaving its contents untouched—is it an actual magical wind, perhaps with its source in Whitehead’s “ill planet”, or is it Whitehead’s drugged visualization of an act of rebellion that he has finally found the will to commit? We have ventured by now so far into the realm of the uncanny that both interpretations are possible, and neither is mutually exclusive.
Understanding the border spaces of reality and history inhabited by the characters is one of many means by which we can negotiate our bewilderment over the intensity of the mushroom trip and the fantastical events, visions, and resurrections. But it’s by no means the only way; even without a complete understanding of the historical period, it’s possible to find your way through the beautiful, hallucinatory images devised through Laurie Rose’s cinematography and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s editing—to simply accept everything without trying too hard to interpret it—and you will find yourself confronting a deeply elemental, blackly comic story of men attempting to wrest control of their own destinies from others who would dominate and subjugate them. Is there any real magic in this story, or is it just the mushrooms and an unreliable point-of-view character? The answer, for Whitehead and for us, is yes. And yes.