Thanks to the blogger at the tilting planet and his futile preoccupations for pointing me to this little low-budget gem, Witchfinder General from 1968. It isn’t rated highly by most – Ken Russell, hearing that his film, The Devils (1971), was thought to be influenced by it supposedly said it was the worst he’d ever seen (from Wiki) – but I think it tells its story rather well. It’s a small film, focusing on a few characters in 17th century rural England, no large historical tableaux, no battles, but it makes its point, and Oliver Cromwell shows his face.
Based on a novel that fictionalizes an historical character, Matthew Hopkins, it tells of his cynical and profitable work searching the countryside for suspected witches, and extracting confessions when he finds them. They are tortured, hanged, and burned; Hopkins gets a hefty fee, and the local officials who request his assistance get a cut of the action too. How much of this story is invented, I do not know, but it captures something about the nature of witch hunts, 17th century and contemporary.
Despite the fact that he’s doing the Lord’s work in the midst of the Puritan Revolution, Hopkins is a bit of dandy. His undoing comes when he “tries” and executes the uncle of the attractive young lady shown at top who is betrothed to a gallant soldier in Cromwell’s army. The young man vows vengeance, and achieves it, hacking away at Hopkins’ carcass with a hatchet, and crying “You have taken him from me!” when his fellow soldiers shoot Hopkins to end the bloody frenzy.
Before his end, however, Hopkins has a good run, and even invents, or claims to, a new way of burning the devil’s minions, by lowering them with ropes onto a burning pyre – we’ve seen that before… He also takes the time to personally “interrogate,” in the privacy of his rooms, any comely maiden that is brought before him.
In the case of the soldier’s woman, she serves herself up to him, knowing that is the only way to have a chance of saving her uncle until her beloved returns from the war. Her uncle is killed anyway, and she is ravished and raped. The film ends with Hopkins’ death and her deliverance, but the soundtrack is of her horrified screaming. Is there any true deliverance for her, after her ordeals?