I love films that inspire discussion, debate, contemplation…films that give you something to chew on. Anyone that has seen A Field in England knows full well that if there’s only one thing that this film clearly provides, it’s a chance for discussion about what the hell it was that you just saw. Outside of that, there’s really not a whole lot to easily grasp, but before I delve into some of that, let’s begin as close as possible to the beginning of the story as we can, shall we?
Amidst the cacophony of war, we see a man named Whitehead, an alchemist’s assistant, who is apparently fleeing from the battle that ranges out of eyesight. In an admitted act of cowardice, he hides in a bush from his pursuer, an imposing man on horseback named Trower (Julian Barratt, of The Might Boosh!). Upon being discovered by another man (whom we come to know as Cutler), Whitehead’s position is revealed to Trower, and we find out that, rather than fleeing from warfare (well, perhaps in addition to), he is looking for someone. While Whitehead is pleading his case that this man is, in fact, the one they’ve been looking for, an unseen assailant ends Trower’s berating of Whitehead by introducing a pike to his abdomen. Well, maybe doesn’t end it, but certainly slows it down a bit. Cutler silences him once and for all with a well placed bullet, and after Whitehead sees two silhouettes in the distance which he passes off as “shadows”, the two men head off together.
Shortly thereafter, they come upon two deserters, Jacob and a man known only as “Friend”. The four men join forces after a bit of a disagreement, and head off in search of an ale house that Cutler seems to know about. Weary from a day’s walk, the men stop and begin to prepare something to eat. Part of this process is Cutler foraging in a vast field for mushrooms, which he adds to the stew, unbeknownst to his companions. If it seems odd to you that Cutler is secretly adding foraged fungus to food without telling the others, it damn well should. Because, you know…’ shrooms, man. Jacob and Friend hungrily slurp down their stew, and after Whitehead refuses repeatedly on the grounds of fasting, Jacob gobbles up his bowl as well. Seeing as how these are *those* kind of mushrooms, Jacob spends pretty much the rest of the movie about as high as Carlos Santana was at Woodstock, when he thought the neck of his guitar was a snake.
Up to this point, the film has been relatively straightforward, and frankly, a tad on the dull side. Patience, dear friends! The very next scene begins to set the tone for the level of what-the-fuckery that follows. There’s a very large stake in the ground, with a very large and very long rope attached to it. Sure, that’s weird, but why are the four men in various poses around it, as though they were posing as subjects for a painting? This is not the last time we see this sort of freeze frame, which almost serves as the mark of a new act in a play. So, back to this mysterious stake and rope. The four men grab hold and begin a tug of war with some sort of unseen force, something that is proving very difficult for them to pull towards them, something that ends up being… a man. Just one man, on his back. We’ll get back to why that was such an arduous task momentarily, but first, the man. We find out that his name is O’Neill, and he’s really the one that Whitehead was looking for, as he has stolen several items from Whitehead’s master.
O’Neill swiftly becomes the one in command of the situation with Cutler’s help. He intends to use Whitehead for his apparent skills in the field of alchemy to find a treasure, and Jacob and Friend (who are both still high as a kite) are tasked with digging it up. Naturally, Whitehead is not really too keen on the idea, especially since O’Neill is supposed to be his prisoner, so the two enter O’Neill’s tent where Whitehead proceeds to scream bloody murder. After his screams subside, he emerges from the tent, bound by rope on a makeshift leash, looking as though he had a lobotomy performed on him. Side note, the use of “Chernobyl” by Blanck Mass is in this scene is PERFECT. Legitimately one of my favorite soundtrack/score moments ever. It’s unbelievably chilling. As Whitehead runs along trying to locate the treasure, the others run after, laughing and mocking him. Halting at a spot very near the tent where all of this began, Whitehead claims this is the spot where the treasure is buried, and thus, Jacob and Friend begin digging under Cutler’s supervision. Not content with essentially having used him as a hunting dog, O’Neill sadistically holds open the puritanical Whitehead’s mouth and pours alcohol in, repeatedly shouting “Open up and let the Devil in!”, an act which almost immediately causes Whitehead to vomit up stones marked with some sort of carving, which he does not remember ingesting.
Delving too much further in to the plot here would land me squarely in spoiler territory, but rest assured there’s plenty of madness, violence, and penis under a magnifying glass ahead. Yes, I said penis under a magnifying glass. Dwell on that for a minute. Ok, st
So, let’s get back to the mushrooms and the rope for a second, and try to get down to the roots of what this movie is actually about. In English folklore, a ring of mushrooms is known as a fairy ring, and is something of a portal to a fairy world. If you’ve seen the movie (no real spoiler here if you haven’t), you’ll recall Whitehead saying that O’Neill must have used some sort of trickery to render himself invisible. Well, part of the lore states that any mortal that enters the ring will become invisible to mortals outside, be forced to dance to the point of exhaustion, madness, or death, and they will be unable to leave the perimeter. Sounds like a pretty good reason to have yourself tied by a heavy rope to a giant stake in the ground to me. For the history nerds amongst us, there’s also a heavy comparison to the actual English Civil War that this is set during, right down to O’Neill bearing a strong resemblance to King Charles I.
Films like this are not often easily understood on the surface, and even knowing some of the inspiration (from both historical and folklore standpoints), it’s still the kind of film that is hard to swallow for a lot of people. As I said at the beginning of this review, I love films that spark discussion, and often those are films, such as this, that come with a heavy dose of head scratching.