Over the years, many people have noted that ‘Witchfinder General’ resembles a good old fashioned Western in its narrative structure and themes, and this argument is greatly enhanced by its extensive use of Britain’s wide open spaces as locations although, given that most of the shoot took place in Suffolk and Norfolk, it might be more appropriate to call it an ‘Eastern’.
It’s also a road movie, or rather a dirt track movie, as there are no motorways here, just bridleways and open country. It traverses an awful lot of ground for a film set in the seventeenth century, and it’s mostly done at breakneck speed, on horseback.
The use of Suffolk and Norfolk is a masterstroke, as these counties pastoral landscapes and pretty, unspoiled villages perfectly evoke the pre-industrial period. There’s also something about the empty, flat landscapes that suits the film perfectly – the isolation of people living in a rural setting where villages are miles apart and towns few and far between. It is perfectly redolent of an England with a population of under five million (it’s just under fifty five million today), a place where many people lived their whole lives in the same, isolated place, completely disconnected from the rest of the county, the country, the world. Ironically, of course, this insular way of life perfectly suited predators like Matthew Hopkins in that it allowed him to do awful things in relative safety, i.e. word was slow to spread and the authorities, caught up in the Civil War, weren’t particularly interested in his methods, only the results.Why am I thinking about Jimmy Savile again?
There are two common misconceptions about the end of Matthew Hopkins career as a Witchfinder. The first is that, eventually, he was put to death for, funnily enough, witchcraft; the second is that he escaped censure for his crimes and had a long and happy retirement. Both are incorrect: despite a year long reign of terror and the deaths of almost 300 women, Hopkins did escape prosecution, and he did retire (to Manningtree in Essex) but he died almost immediately afterwards. Astonishingly, he was only 27 years old.