When Morse was a Marxist-Leninist: Maurice Hatton’s Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition (1968)

By Laura Mayne (@LauraJaneMayne)

There are plenty of films released in the 1960s that for some reason or other rarely make it into the annals of the British cinema of that era. Many hundreds, in fact: hastily churned out supporting features, low-budget exploitations, small independent films that were considered uncommercial by the major circuits, and some efforts that simply sunk without a trace (be it due to of a lack of distribution muscle, mis-marketing or the public exercising their fundamental consumer right to vote with their backsides). There are undoubtedly some diamonds hidden amid the roughage, but in choosing to write about these films, to generate discussion about them and in effect to bring them back within the canon begs the question: does this film really deserve reappraisal? It’s more than possible that a production could have been sidelined in scholarship for good reason, and issues about our individual criteria for valuing and evaluating films aside, what if a production has been forgotten because it’s really just dreadful?

But even if Maurice Hatton’s Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition were a dreadful film (and it isn’t) I would nevertheless argue its importance to the history of radical filmmaking in Britain. The film, which takes a satirical view of British socialism in the run-up to the events of ’68, follows John Thaw as Dom, a Marxist-Leninist who is expelled from the British Communist Party and subsequently joins the Revolutionary Party of the Third World. It’s a fiction film structured in documentary format with a tongue-in-cheek narration throughout (though at times it veers into an almost newsreel-type format with jarring, intercut sequences of stills arranged along particular themes, such as accidents at work, education and inequality).

The film is not commercially available, but I was able to see it at the BFI, and the chance to view it on a Steenbeck was an unexpected – if mildly terrifying – treat. Accompanying me was Mr Joseph Choonara, self-described revolutionary socialist and regular contributor to The Socialist Review, whose presence (as, effectively, ‘the intended audience’) was useful in helping me to follow the thread of the film, but also in helping me thread the actual film through the machine:

steenbeck

Thaw staring ahead with revolutionary fervour.

‘We are the bosses now!’– Sixties filmmaking on the margins

Like many low budget films made outside the industry at this time, Praise Marx was made largely on goodwill, deferrals and favours called in from suppliers and laboratories. Unlike other alternative productions it was a professional 90 minute feature film made in colour, and, along with Don Levy’s Herostratus (1967) and Peter Sykes’ The Committee (1968) it was one of the few experimental features made in this period. Although its £25,000 budget was tiny compared with the cost of even a cheap British feature in 1968 (which was around £250,000) this actually represented the higher budget end of the experimental/alternative spectrum.

In the 1960s the conventional film industry was a closed industry for a number of reasons. It’s often argued that it was closed to new ideas, and where innovation did occur the general formula was ‘repeat until stagnant’ (as was seen when producers tried to capitalise on the popularity of the New Wave cycle in the early part of the decade).  Restrictive union practices were blamed for inhibiting creativity on set, while new entrants found themselves in the catch-22 of being unable to get a job without union membership but unable to get union membership without a job.

When it came to finance, the BFI Production Board was active but other than this key outlet, funding was not easy to come by (the frustration of Hatton and his contemporaries in finding an outlet for their ideas is well covered by Michael Darlow in his book Independent’s Struggle). The National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC) typically provided ‘end’ money for films, but this meant that the producer first had to raise the bulk of the finance. The money for Praise Marx came from a number of sources including the BFI Production Fund, Hatton’s own company Mithras Films, the NFFC and a German TV company that just happened to be looking to develop an interest in feature films – but this type of funding deal for a more ‘experimental’ production was the exception rather than the rule.

In short, I’d argue that Praise Marx is worthy of reappraisal for two main reasons. In terms of its production history, it is a testament to those structural problems that were intrinsic to the work being done on the edges of the filmmaking establishment in the 1960s. In terms of its content and style, it’s also worth looking at as one of the few genuinely political feature films released in this period, and it conveys its ideas with an energetic rhythm and a biting wit that is not only striking but also fairly entertaining.

‘The sexual front of the class war is not to be underestimated…’

One senses the genuine frustration behind Hatton’s pop at British socialism and how it deals with the events of ‘68. The tongue in cheek cynicism of the narrator provides a counterpoint to the blinkered naivety of Dom and other members of his party. At party meetings everything is put to a vote, until the voting becomes recursively pointless. There is also one memorable moment where Dom tries to induce a strike by quoting Lenin at a nonplussed union leader. With his exhaustive knowledge of political theory Thaw’s character is more than a well-informed poser but his chief motivation does appear to be directed towards charming a succession of pampered dollybirds into bed, his rationale being that ‘the sexual front of the class war, as Trotsky said, is not to be underestimated.’ It’s also worth noting that despite the leftist angle of the film, the sexual politics are more than a little problematic (‘when I violate them, I violate their whole class… their women are the weakest link in the capitalist chain!’).

But the main issue with Praise Marx is really the disjointed tone running throughout. The film is intercut with short clips featuring successions of stills linked by a voiceover relating to particular themes (such as accidents at work, education and inequality). These clips are serious and educational in tone; we learn of the number of national working days lost to illness, and the quality of education in public versus private schools. Events in France in May 1968 are also covered, with the use of real news footage conveying the seriousness of the situation. Though well-handled, this doesn’t gel with the rest of the film – which is really very funny. However, probably only a few would understand the fullest extent of its satire.

Interestingly, my companion’s take on this was very different. For him the sequences seemed to reference Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, while also helping to make sense of Dom’s split from the group and his growing preoccupation with working class issues, and as such they worked well within the overall film. For me (as more of a general viewer) this highlighted the fact that, for all its criticisms of an ouroboric movement out of touch with the reality of capitalist exploitation, Praise Marx is aimed squarely within that movement, at a very specific audience. But if the film is insular, it does know its audience well, and beyond this narrow ken it has a few great moments – for example, there is a bit of brilliant dark humour in Dom ineptly trying to ‘torture’ a man with a cattle prod. The film also takes its title from Dom’s lofty search for a tune that will accompany the revolution and furnish it with the proper tone in order to ‘bring in the souls of men everywhere.’ He flicks through a number of potential albums (‘songs of the Cuban revolution – nothing but rhumbas!’) and finally settles for paraphrasing the American patriotic song ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.’

The film also lacks a satisfying denouement. It’s not simply that it leaves behind an ambiguous ending – it’s that it doesn’t really have one. The various sub-plots explored throughout (Dom’s relationships with women, with his party, the accusations of misconduct which culminate in his prosecution in front of a trial of his peers) are not brought to any kind of conclusion. However, despite these shortcomings Praise Marx remains a very interesting film, as well as providing a useful insight into British socialist politics in the late 1960s.

The film received its television première on Channel 4 in April 1985. It’s unsurprising that the Channel would buy the rights to show the film; in addition to the fact that Hatton directed a Film4 (Nelly’s Version, 1983), the politics of Praise Marx suits this era of the channel’s history well, and they had also bought the rights to screen Hatton’s Long Shot (1978) in the previous week. The Channel 4 press packs, always remarkably comprehensive in their film reviews, refer to it as ‘a bold and imaginative satire which opened the way for independent filmmaking in Britain’.* For many, this television screening would have represented their only chance to see the film, and I’m especially interested in talking to those who did. So, if you remember watching Praise Marx, and/or you have any thoughts on it, please feel free to respond in the comments below!

*See Channel 4 Press Packs, “Movie highlights: 1985 week 16 page 53” and Channel 4 Press Packs, “Movie highlights: 1985 week 15 page 58” accessible via the BUFVC website: http://bufvc.ac.uk/tvandradio/c4pp/search

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8 comments

  1. As the film-threading/viewing companion of the author of this post, it was suggested that I give my slightly more positive take on the film’s narrative, which, as she suggests, seems to be aimed at a very specific audience…

    For me it works because the narrative of the film is structured around the path actually taken (in a somewhat less ludicrous form) by quite large numbers of young people at this time. At the start of 1968 there were a number of small groups that had emerged in opposition to the mainstream Communist parties and dubbed “Groupuscules” by the Communists. They tended to be heavily inflected by Third Worldism, Guevarism, Maoism and so on, with a heavy dose of scepticism about workers in developed countries.

    So there’s a scene near the start of the film where the tiny bunch of revolutionaries Dom has joined talk about forming a “foco”—ie a guerrilla group modelled on that of Che Guevara (who had been killed fighting in Bolivia the previous year). This kind of approach had a real appeal for young people reacting against the increasingly obvious conservatism and authoritarianism of the official Communist parties. (It also had some influence over slightly bigger and more serious Trotskyist groups that grew during the movement against the Vietnam war. I’m sure in one shot there is footage of Tariq Ali, leader of one such group, the IMG, protesting against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia…)

    The whole drama of the second half of the film is really about Dom coming to recognise the limitations of the urban guerrilla/third worldist approach, lacking as it did any real purchase over the mass of working class people. This is why his trip to France in May 1968 is such a big turning point: here he encounters the biggest general strike in world history, taking place in the heartland of developed Europe.

    The implication of the newsreel style footage in the early parts of the film, and the references to Dom’s working class childhood, is that he is already predisposed to have a concern for the British working class. In fact, the May events in France were a wake up call for lots of revolutionaries at this time, not all of them from such a humble background.

    In this sense, the dénouement of the film is precisely Dom on a train with a bunch of union militants singing revolutionary songs and going off to support a workers’ occupation, having broken with his former comrades. Britain was experiencing the start one of the biggest strikes waves in its history, culminating in 1972-4.

    Hatton, I think, sees this as progress, and he’s broadly right. Admittedly, though, it is a dénouement that will be lost on many cinema goers…

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  2. Are you sure that’s the only time it was shown on TV? I remember watching it and would love to see it again. But I think it was in the 90s. I could be wrong though. Happy to answer any questions you have.

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