STAHL: If someone’s in custody, as in Abu Ghraib, and they are brutalized by a law enforcement person — if you listen to the expression “cruel and unusual punishment,” doesn’t that apply?
SCALIA: No. To the contrary. You think — Has anybody ever referred to torture as punishment? I don’t think so.
STAHL: Well I think if you’re in custody, and you have a policeman who’s taken you into custody–
SCALIA: And you say he’s punishing you? What’s he punishing you for? … When he’s hurting you in order to get information from you, you wouldn’t say he’s punishing you.What is he punishing you for?
“I will find out the truth for you, have no fear.”
Quick notes on a recent viewing:
Michael Reeves’ masterpiece, Witchfinder General, is set at a time when the line between church and state has been almost completely blurred. When a political operative stirs up the “average Joes” with fear of The Other hiding among them, using their now-brought-to-the-forefront xenophobia to justify the use of torture, and capitalizing on this to solidify his own power and wealth.
It is one of the most common clichés in writing about movies to claim that this film or that is “as relevant now as when it was released,” but it is no less true when said about this film. The movie follows the exploits of Matthew Hopkins, the titular Witchfinder General, and his assistant Stearne as they travel the British countryside cynically locating and punishing “witches” for profit. It’s made fairly clear early on that neither actually believe the charges that they’re leveling, but are instead charging the innocent without conscience for their own reasons. In a telling early exchange, Hopkins questions his assistant, asking, “you enjoy torture, don’t you, Stearne?” Stearne replies “and you…sir?” Hopkins looks coldly forward. It’s not a matter of enjoyment on Hopkins’ part; it’s a matter of power. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible in this day and age to watch Stearne’s gleeful participation in their “enhanced interrogation techniques” and not see echoes of the images from Abu Ghraib prison.
If the film had been made today, it would be seen as a heavy-handed comment on the Bush administration’s support of torture (under an “it’s not torture if we do it” rubric) and its blatant attempts to break down the barrier between church and state. However, its 1968 release date makes it all too easy to make claims of its prophetic nature, ignoring the obvious end-of-the-’60s anti-authoritarianism of the piece. The looming dark autumn following the previous year’s Summer of Love weighs heavily on the way the events are depicted in the film, much in the way Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park is a direct comment on the Nixonian era. But I feel that both views — tying its commentary solely to the time in which it was filmed, as well as ignoring its ties to the turbulent year of 1968 in favor of looking at it solely through the prism of the War on Terror — are approaches that do the movie a serious disservice and ignore the deeper themes of the film, which are both timely and timeless.
There’s a certain air of fatalistic inevitability pervading the film, with its matter-of-fact handling of violence as a means to an end, with its period setting and its challenge to the audience (either in 1968 or some 40 years later) to draw comparisons to the present. It seems to be saying “all of this has happened before; all of this will happen again” (to lift from Battlestar Galactica). The propensity toward violence as a way of establishing or reinforcing one’s power is a built-in part of our nature, always lurking beneath the surface, and easy to summon and/or exploit, no matter what era you are looking at. This is reinforced in the final moments of the film, when the ostensible hero Richard Marshall finally takes his revenge on Hopkins, punishing him with multiple axe blows. When his soldier compatriots arrive on the scene and put Hopkins out of his misery with a gunshot, Marshall repeatedly cries out “you took him from me!” He has been robbed of his power, the power that seemingly only violence can provide. And when all humanity is stripped — whether in the tyrannical oppression seen in the character of Hopkins, in the sadistic indulgence of Stearne, or in the theft of Marshall’s humanity at the hands of both Hopkins and Stearne — this motivating force of violence as a means to assert power is all that remains.
It’s a bleak view of humanity. It’s purely misanthropic. There is no hope for anyone in the film’s universe; even Marshall’s wife Sarah is driven to the brink of insanity by what she has seen and endured. The townsfolk of the film’s population are easily driven by fear and a lust for violence; the soldiers advance and prosper from acts of violence. Violence is simply an inescapable and corruptible aspect of life, and can be manipulated and exploited toward any nefarious ends if we are not careful to keep this aspect of our selves in check, and reject anyone who wishes to capitalize on this part of our natures for their own benefit. Reeves is pessimistic about our ability to pull that off, however; a viewpoint that recent and repeated events have only supported.