The action begins in 19th Century Dorset where six manual laborers (including British film vets James Fox and Freddie Jones), soon to be known to history as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, decide to form an early form of a union known as the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Their efforts get them shipped off to Australia by their displeased landowner, and while their new home promises the chance to establish themselves in a different sort of society, injustice and inhumanity still rear their heads regardless of locale.
Though shot with all the visual precision and splendor of more lauded painterly films like Days of Heaven, Comrades is hardly a series of pretty picture postcards. The incredible ensemble cast and extremely caustic subject matter (which detours briefly into such surprising subjects as bestiality and physical torture) make for a unique and richly varied visual experience which never grows dull over the entire running time. The split structure between the UK and Australia is unique as it allows not only a variety of landscapes but in actors as well, with familiar faces like John Hargreaves popping up in the second half which steers into some territory lesser known even to historians. It’s a shame Douglas had so much difficulty mounting his feature productions as this ambitious achievement demonstrates he certainly had the ability to carry off any project he so desired.
A title long desired by cineastes but difficult to find in any format, Comrades has finally been given a respectable presentation by the BFI on DVD and Blu-Ray. The results are, to say the least, astounding; this is a top-notch HD transfer that soars with all the beauty of a freshly-struck print. Colors and detail are faultless, while the level of film grain is just rich and healthy enough to maintain a satisfying level of cinematic texture. This is simply a gorgeous presentation and pure demo material all the way.
A second disc contains a host of additional extras including the one-hour “Lanterna Magicka: Bill Douglas & The Secret History of Cinema” (which examines the director’s affection for early cinematic techniques and equipment as well as his international influences), “Visions of Comrades” (a re-editing of footage from the Douglas doc on the BFI Trilogy release related solely to this film), a half-hour interview with the director from the late ‘70s about his powerful first three films (inexplicably broken into two parts), a theatrical trailer and on-set TV report from the location shoot in Dorset, and “Home and Away,” a 1974 short by Michael Alexander co-written by Douglas about another young boy coming of age.