Kevin Brownlow's activities as a film historian and television documentary-maker have tended to erase both memory and recognition of the two extraordinary features he made in collaboration with Andrew Mollo. Both films reached the screen after considerable effort. It Happened Here, a 'what if' drama exploring an England under Nazi occupation, began production in 1956, concluded in 1963, and entered distribution through United Artists in 1966. Winstanley found an audience more speedily in 1976, but the 17th century Civil War story still took eight years to reach fruition. The films were the work of mavericks, shooting largely at weekends in between paid work as a film editor and historian (Brownlow) or a military and costume specialist (Mollo).
Kevin Brownlow was born in Crowborough, Sussex, on 2 June 1938. His passion for cinema struck early. He collected films from the age of eleven, and at the age of fourteen, with a 9.5mm camera, began making The Capture, an adaptation of a de Maupassant story, with its action updated from the Franco-Prussian war to 1940s France. The fascination with the Second World War continued in the much more ambitious It Happened Here, based on Brownlow's own story idea. The need for authentic details in costumes brought him in contact with Andrew Mollo (born London, 15 May, 1940), the son of a Russian émigré who had fought on both sides in the Russian Revolution. Serving as co-director, Mollo considerably strengthened the film's chilling realism.
It Happened HereEdit
During its long gestation (documented in his book How It Happened Here), Brownlow worked on documentaries, mostly for World Wide Pictures. It Happened Here emerged through its piecemeal production remarkably intact, with sharp editing, canny camera placements, evocative locations, and persuasively understated performances by the largely non-professional cast. Censor cuts were enforced in one sequence showing British fascists in full vocal flight; though the suggested ease in which Britain fell under Nazi control remained disturbing enough.
With its quiet urgency and novel subject-matter, It Happened Here became a critical and public success, but within the industry Brownlow and Mollo were speedily tagged 'uncommercial'. Eventually backed by the BFI Production Board, they soldiered on with their new project, based on David Caute's novel Comrade Jacob, with the Civil War's failed Leveller and Digger movements as the background. Mollo, meanwhile, served as a film consultant on Doctor Zhivago (d. David Lean, 1965), while Brownlow edited The Charge of the Light Brigade (d. Tony Richardson, 1968) and enjoyed considerable success with the book The Parade's Gone By... (1968), an influential celebration through interviews of Hollywood's silent era. Other projects championing silent cinema followed, notably the painstaking restoration of Abel Gance's Napoléon, first unveiled in 1980, and the Hollywood series (1980) produced with David Gill for Thames Television.
Not simply through hindsight does Winstanley appear as a silent film manqué. The film's strength lies in its images; its weakness lies in part in the earnest quantities of words, whether issuing from characters' mouths or placed in the commentary. Through editing, composition, rushing, hand-held camerawork, and Prokofiev's music from Alexander Nevsky (USSR, d. Sergei Eisenstein, 1938), the opening battle directly acknowledges Eisenstein and Gance. Other influences include Dreyer's play of faces and space, and the stark lyricism of Arthur von Gerlach's little-known classic Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (1925). Ernest Vincze's black-and-white camerawork creates eloquently mournful beauty from the Diggers' struggles with the land and authority: though static dialogue exchanges and elliptical plotting keep the overall dramatic impact muted.
On release in 1976, Winstanley demonstrated Brownlow and Mollo's estrangement from both Britain's mainstream and independent cinemas. The film did not fit the costume drama pigeonhole, nor did it pursue the Greenaway path towards elaborate games with form and content. Industry disinterest and the film's general reception pushed the filmmakers decisively towards other endeavours: for Mollo, chiefly production design (most strikingly on Mike Newell's Dance with a Stranger, 1984); for Brownlow, silent film presentations, a David Lean biography, and television portraits of Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, and other giants from the parade gone by.
Brownlow, Kevin, How It Happened Here (London: Secker and Warburg, 1969)
Brownlow, Kevin, 'Filming the Diggers', in Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1976, p. 92
Mival, Eric, It Happened Here Again (documentary, 1976)
Tibbetts, John C., 'Kevin Brownlow's Historical Films: It Happened Here (1965) and Winstanley (1975)', in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, v. 20 n. 2, 2000, pp. 227-251
Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors
Kevin Brownlow (2 June, 1938–) is a film historian, television documentary-maker, and author born in Crowborough, Sussex. Brownlow developed an interest in silent film at the young age of eleven. This interest grew into a life-long passion for the cinema and a career spent documenting and restoring film. He is without question the most respected film historian of the early cinema. His initiative and interest in seeking out and interviewing many largely forgotten, elderly film pioneers in the 1960's and 1970's is credited with preserving a priceless legacy of cinema that would have otherwise been lost.
It Happened Here (The Film)Edit
His fascination for World War II prompted the creation of an alternate-history film, It Happened Here, in which the Nazis defeated the Allies. Brownlow began work on this film at the age of 18, and soon began to collaborate with his friend Andrew Mollo, who was 16. After 8 years of struggling, during which the film's content changed dramatically, it was finally completed in 1964 with the last minute aid of Tony Richardson, but not released until 1966. Mollo and Brownlow spent several more years on their next film, Winstanley, 1975 about a Digger commune following the English Civil War.
The Parade's Gone by...Edit
In 1968 Brownlow's first book about silent film, The Parade's Gone By..., was published. The book, which relied heavily on interviews with the leading actors and directors of the silent era, launched him on his career as a film historian. Brownlow spent many years garnering support for the restoration of Abel Gance's 1927 French classic, Napoleon, a "lost" epic film that used an early example of the split screen or widescreen format. Brownlow's efforts eventually succeeded, and the restored, re-scored version was shown in Paris and New York in 1980 and 1981, with the director Gance living to see the acclaim for his restored film.
During this period Brownlow began his successful collaboration with David Gill with whom he would produce several award winning documentaries on the silent era. The first of these was Hollywood, a 13-part history of the silent era in Hollywood, produced for Thames Television in 1979. This was followed by Unknown Chaplin (1983) (--> Charlie Chaplin), Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987) (--> Buster Keaton), Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius c. (1989) (--> Harold Lloyd), and Cinema Europe: the Other Hollywood (1996), among others. They also restored and released a large number of classic silent films through the Thames Silents series in the 1980s and 1990s, generally with new musical scores by Carl Davis.
Since David Gill's death in 1997, Brownlow has continued to make documentaries, in collaboration with Patrick Stanbury, at Photoplay Productions, a production company formed by Brownlow and Gill. The most recent of these are Garbo, a documentary produced for Turner Classic Movies to mark the centenary of the actress' birth, and I Am King Kong (2005), about filmmaker Merian C. Cooper.
How It Happened Here (The Book)Edit
Almost thirty-five years after its initial publication this book has lost none of its impact, freshness and relevance. And none of its quietly understated humour. The UKA Press  is privileged to be entrusted with its re-issue.
(The book contains almost 100 pictures, mostly stills from the film, and an introduction by David Robinson)
How It Happened Here tells the story of the making of a film and the subsequent reception that the film received and the controversy and alarm that it stirred up when it was first released. The film-makers were two teenagers (18 and 16) and they started out with no budget and a borrowed 16 mm camera. The project took 8 years to complete.
Part of the book is a humorous and detailed account of how the boys overcame all the practical and financial hurdles of amateur film making and saw the project through to completion and national release. This in itself would qualify the book as a thoroughly entertaining read and a sound basis for a course in film making or media studies of any kind. But this was no ordinary film. Kevin and his co-director Andrew Mollo took as their theme the “what if?” idea of a conquered and occupied England, after a hypothetical defeat and invasion following the Dunkirk retreat.
As they grew up with the project and developed their own political understanding the film departed from its “war adventure” origins and developed into a low key and terrifying Orwellian fantasy confronting its audience with the detailed reality of life under Fascism, darkened by all the moral compromise that is forced on everyone who wants to survive under such a regime.
It Happened Here is a provocative and challenging film that demands of everyone who sees it “What would I have done?”. The British people had never before been able to imagine with such clarity the fate that they had so narrowly (some would say, unaccountably) avoided. A nation lulled by Churchillian rhetoric into complacent self-satisfaction was shaken more than anyone could have foreseen by this vision of what might have been.
But in telling his story Kevin had allowed genuine British Fascists to speak their mind, and therein lies the starting point of the second part of the book, the battle to confront the misunderstanding and hostility of Jewish organisations and other well-meaning people who had failed to appreciate the irony of Kevin’s allowing the Fascists to be themselves in front of his camera.
The six minute sequence became more famous than the film itself, a symbol of every serious artist’s struggle with the forces of censorship and narrow-mindedness. The story of Kevin’s attempts to overcome the wall of misunderstanding that stood between the completed film and its general release touch on just about every issue of artistic freedom and will serve as an inspiration to anybody who believes in free speech and the other things that distinguish England as it is from England as it might have been.
Arguably Kevin and his film have never been fully accepted and his career has never completely recovered from this early brush with the arbiters of artistic good taste and the boundary setters of what we may and may not say. But what he did say was profoundly worth saying.
- The Parade's Gone By.... Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
- The War, the West and the Wilderness. Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
- Hollywood, the Pioneers. William Collins, 1979.
- Napoleon: Abel Gance's Classic Film. Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
- Behind the Mask of Innocence. Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
- David Lean. Faber and Faber, 1996.
- Mary Pickford Rediscovered. Harry N. Abrams, 1999.