200 years ago this week, a crowd of 60,000 working class folks from in and around Manchester gathered at St. Peter’s Field to demand representation in Parliament. They were set upon by an armed private militia paid for by local landowners, who raged through the crowd with sabers drawn, killing 18 and injuring hundreds more. It’s the kind of thing you expect to hear about happening in Russia or India, not England. And yet it did. Since the defeat of Napoleon was still fresh in people’s minds, the press labeled the event Peterloo.
Mike Leigh’s movie is almost too faithful to events, introducing us to many real people but not giving us enough time to understand their relationships to each other. One speaker from London refused to appear on the podium with a local leader, but we aren’t told why. Two other group leaders are arrested and beaten by the police, and we never learn what happened to them.
The climactic scenes of the demonstration are extraordinarily well done. The landowners, some of whom clearly believed the threat of violence would be enough to disperse the crowd, called out warnings from the windows above, literally reading the crowd the Riot Act. The crowd was so big those voices could not be heard, and when people suddenly realized that mounted, sword-wielding troops were rushing the crowd, panic ensued.
The movie ends with the massacre and sadly needs an epilogue. As often happens, a heavy-handed response to a peaceful demonstration backfired, and the workers’ demands for voting rights were eventually successful. A number of newspapers joined the effort for workers’ rights, and one new paper, the Manchester Guardian, is still in business today, without the geographical denominator.
On Amazon Prime.