Witchfinder General was the final film from the talented director Michael Reeves before his untimely death at age 25 from an alcohol and barbituate overdose (often described as a suicide, the official coroner’s report actually classed Reeves death as accidental).
The film is set in 1645 during the English civil war, a bloody and fascinating period, that has been covered in surprisingly few British films of TV series (most films set in the period focus on the notable historical figures of the Civil War, 1970’s Cromwell and 2003’s To Kill A King, the 2008 TV series The Devil’s Whore is an exception). The war has caused a widespread breakdown in social order that has allowed unscrupulous men like Matthew Hopkins (Price) to take advantage for their own ends. Hopkins was a real historical figure (although the film is only based on the real character in the loosest sense), a lawyer who sets himself up as a Witch Finder, selling his services to local magistrates. Accompanied by his loathsome assistant John Stearne (Russell), who performs the “interrogations” and does the grunt work, Hopkins exploits popular superstitions and prejudices (Witchcraft and Catholicism are seen as more or less interchangeable). It is clear from the outset that Hopkins is not a man of conviction or faith, his goal is accumulation of wealth, and sexually exploiting the younger women accused of sins against god. A young Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) becomes embroiled in an obsessive quest for vengeance against Hopkins after his fiancé is brutalised at the hands of Hopkins and Stearne after her uncle, a priest, is baselessly accused of witchcraft.
Like The Wicker Man, there are no supernatural elements in Witchfinder General. In fact this is only superficially a horror film, its genre classification mostly due to its (for the time) brutal violence. In actuality this is one of the rarest things, a genuine English western (Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes is another example). Reeves takes classic western themes of honor, justice,and revenge and sets them against the landscape of rural East Anglia. He perfectly captures the savagery of mankind, and the insanity of superstition and law being seen as one and the same, and contrasts this with scenery of pastoral beauty. In the film’s incredible opening scene a woman is dragged by a baying crowd to a gallows in a field and hung as a priest drones on, around her sheep graze unperturbed by this violence. No other British film until Dead Man’s Shoes would use an English landscape in quite this way again. Reeves cinematographer John Coquillion would go on to shoot Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron for Sam Peckinpah.
This is the work of an angry young director, the theme of social breakdown was incredibly pertinent in the late 1960s as the Vietnam war was fought, and a cultural civil war erupted in riots in the US which would soon be seen in France and Italy in the year of Witchfinder General’s release. Reeve’s film condemns state and religious hypocrisy and in a brilliant ending shows the futility of personal vengeance. The film has added relevance now in it’s depiction of torture and it is hard to watch without thinking of parallels with the war on terror.