From swashbucklers and witchfinders to radicals and whores – the best of the 17th Century on the screen

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From continental wars and revolutions to major advances in science and political ideas, the upheaval and conflict of the 17th Century produced many stories that filmmakers have attempted to retell on the big and small screen.

While ancient Rome and Edwardian country manors have always been more popular settings with audiences, the era of Cavaliers and Roundheads has not been without its own collection of films and television serials.

In the first of a two-part feature about the 17th Century on the screen, our member David Rowlinson takes a look at ten of the very best…

1) The Moonraker (1958)

Very much a part of the height of the swashbuckler era of filmmaking, The Moonraker tells the story of a mysterious Royalist hero on a mission to smuggle Prince Charles out of England after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester before Oliver Cromwell (played by Dad’s Army’s John Le Mesurier) can capture him.

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2) Witchfinder General (1968)

Heavily censored in the UK on its initial release, Witchfinder General is a fictionalised account of the infamous witch hunter, Matthew Hopkins as he sweeps a reign of terror across East Anglia. Vincent Price would go on to rate his performance as Hopkins as his best, and the film is now regarded as one of the best horrors in the history of cinema.

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3) Cromwell (1970)

Richard Harris plays the eponymous figure in one of the most famous and simplistic depictions of the English Civil War. The film is noted for its almost endless amount of historical inaccuracies – not only producing a near-libellous depiction of the Earl of Manchester but also having him, a lord, sitting in the House of Commons – but it has developed a cult following thanks to its spectacular battle sequences and stirring performances, particularly from Richard Harris and also Alec Guinness as King Charles I.

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4) Winstanley (1975)

Winstanley tells the story of social and religious reformer Gerard Winstanley who, along with a small band of followers known as the Diggers or True Levellers, occupied privatised lands and attempted to establish self-sufficient farming communities. The film went to great lengths to maintain a high level of historical accuracy, even going as far as to use genuine armour borrowed from the Tower of London, and Miles Halliwell as Winstanley reading the words of actual pamphlets of the time.

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5) By the Sword Divided (1983-85)

This series ran on the BBC for two years and followed the struggles of two noble families, the Laceys and the Fletchers, as they found themselves on opposing sides during the English Civil War. The show was not without its critics, earning the phrase “by the sword defeated” by one reviewer, but it ran long enough to cover the history from the outbreak of the civil war to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

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6) The Three Musketeers (1993)

Not an accurate in its portrayal of 17th Century France by any means, but the 1993 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel did bring an infectious excitement to it that is hard to not enjoy. Featuring a cast including the scene-stealing Tim Curry as Cardinal Richelieu, The Three Musketeers simplifies its source material into an enjoyable action comedy – provided you can look past French musketeers speaking with American accents.

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7) Alatriste (2006)

Viggo Mortensen stars as Captain Alatriste, a soldier in the Spanish army during the Thirty Years War. The film, the second most expensive in Spanish film history, culminates in the battle of Rocroi with one of the best depictions of 17th Century warfare ever made for film or television.

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8) The Devil’s Whore (2008)

A four-part series set between 1642-1660 that follows the events of the English Civil War and years of the republic through the eyes of fictional heroine Angelica Fanshawe. Among the cast were well-known stars such as John Simm, Michael Fassbender and Peter Capaldi. A sequel, New Worlds, followed in 2014.

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9) A Field in England (2013)

Set in the aftermath of a civil war battle, A Field In England tells of a group of deserters who descend into madness when they eat from a field of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Unique and bold, director Ben Wheatley offers a new take on the historical drama genre.

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10) The Witch (2015)

The debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers, The Witch tells the story of a Puritan family in colonial America who are tormented by an unknown evil lurking in the woods surrounding their home. The film received wide critical acclaim for its suspenseful atmosphere and accurate depiction of a 17th Century God-fearing populace.

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3 thoughts on “From swashbucklers and witchfinders to radicals and whores – the best of the 17th Century on the screen

  1. Reblogged this on Cryssa Bazos and commented:
    Here’s a great list of 17th century inspired films curated by The Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote that I wanted to pass along. Some I’ve seen and fully endorse. Alatriste, for example, is as well done as the Earl’s Regiment states (and bonus: Viggo acts in flawless Spanish!). Others I haven’t yet seen but have always wanted to. Time to start tracking those down.
    When the nights get long and cold, you know what I’ll be doing this winter.
    If you’ve watched any of these films, let me know which one and what you thought of it.

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