Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 21: The Gentle Gunman (1952)

Another minor revelation when approaching my survey of Ealing films: they made this film about ‘the Troubles’ that included an attempt to present both sides of the conflict, and which cast cherub-faced John Mills as an IRA terrorist! Despite the odds (and there are several, including the presence of my Ealing bête noire, Robert Beatty), the film is a fascinating and enjoyable piece of thriller fiction that rarely lets its politics get in the way of the more genre-based pleasures. Based on a play (that had previously been produced for the BBC in 1950), the story’s stage roots are quite obvious at points in the film: most notably in several long scenes set in an Irish garage. Yet the film also expands out into tube station bombings, night-time shootings, and rooftop chases that give the film a fluidity and tension beyond what a theatrical production would (likely) have been able to convey.

The film is focused on Terry (Mills) and Matt Sullivan (Dirk Bogarde), both members of the IRA, and both involved with the same woman, Maureen Fagan (Elizabeth Sellars). The film opens with Matt arriving at a republican cell in London, looking for Terry, whose behaviour has aroused suspicion among their brethren. The London sequences are really strong, mostly filmed on location, with the darkened wartime lighting, wet streets, and people huddled in houses and in tube stations. Matt is tasked with placing a bomb on Camden Town tube platform, before catching the last tube. Despite the presence of women and children sheltering from an air raid, Matt places the bomb and is about to get on the tube – when a group of kids notice his abandoned case is ticking. Matt freezes, misses the train, then panics – running off the platform. Terry, who has been watching him, throws the bomb into the tunnel, and heads after Matt.

This tube station sequence (and the following arrests of the Irish cell, and Matt and Terry’s rooftop confrontation where Terry confirms he’s been working with the English, doubting his role as ‘an anarchist in the middle of an air-raid’) is suitably tense, and strikingly shot and edited. There are nice compositions – Matt and Terry sit in adjacent phone booths, talking on the phone to avoid being spotted; Bogarde in the background spots Mills, lighting up a cigarette in the extreme left of frame; the two actors on the roof, faces obscured by hats, occasional bursts of light from below illuminating them – and the editing, particularly in the tube sequence, builds to the explosion through quick cuts to Bogarde’s face and the playing children. This opening really sets the tone for the film, and I felt a tinge of disappointment when it became clear the bulk of the film would actually be set in a garage in Ireland rather than in this shady and dangerous wartime London.

The plot becomes a little tortuous here, as Matt reports Terry as a traitor, we learn he is now sleeping with Terry’s old girlfriend Maureen, meet local republicans Shinto (Beatty) and Murphy (Michael Golden), as well as Maureen’s mother Molly (Barbara Mullen) and brother Johnny (James Kennedy), and a plot is set in motion to recapture the men captured in the London raid. Most of this, as I said above, takes place in the garage – with occasional cuts to Belfast docks, where Johnny works. The night-time city scenes are more atmospheric (the garage is largely shot during the day, or on well-lit studio sets) and play to the film’s generic interests in the shadowy world of crime thrillers. Johnny is shot, Matt tries to get him back over the border, Terry returns, and the three of them are captured by Shinto. The denouement of the film returns to similar issues from the tube station: a tense ambush at the docks (in daytime), innocent people under threat of guns and grenades, and Matt forced to choose his path. Although not as successful a sequence as the opening, it is brutal in its dispatching of minor characters and does set up a nice double-cross from Terry that ends the film.

Despite its narrative content – and even with the wartime setting allowing some distance – the film does go to some lengths to avoid taking sides in the Troubles (or, at least, to avoid being seen to take sides). Despite the criminal and terrorist past of the two brothers, who in most films would have to be caught, killed or morally rebuked, Matt and Terry wander away at the end, with no sense of punishment, and with their fraternal bond stronger than ever. Terry, of course, has represented a dispassionate logical view throughout (his riposte to Shinto’s statement that a man had died for Ireland is ‘better had he lived for it.’): the film obviously shares this sentiment, and Matt’s realisation of this truth is likely what ensures he survives to the end.

Yet despite Terry’s centrality here, there is an issue over the casting of John Mills. Given his other appearances for Ealing (The Big Blockade and The Black Sheep of Whitehall in wartime, playing Captain Scott in Scott of the Antarctic, then returning for a late Ealing appearance in Dunkirk), there is nothing that suggests he is capable of playing an IRA traitor, even if the character is actually helping the British at the same time. He is the cool-headed older brother and man of action (no longer ‘a boy’), able to impart grown-up advice to his younger brother (a strong performance from Bogarde, but in the tough rebellious role he was already known for) and lead him away from the path of violence. Yet Mills, although solid, rarely feels threatening: he is supposed to have been a stalwart republican until he sees the ‘error’ of those ways, but Mills largely ambles around the film being avuncular and chatty – we rarely see any sign of an underlying steely resolve or determination.

At the same time, as the images through the article show, the film’s producers and distributors seemed intent on drawing a female audience – the appeal of Mills and Bogarde might accomplish that on its own, but the film moves beyond the idea that violence (and this genre) as a man’s game, by making an explicit link to the central female character, Maureen. Sellars plays her as strong, passionate and opinionated, but that passion gets her brother shot and her mother rejecting her: when Terry takes Matt away at the end, it is as much away from Maureen as it is the IRA (Terry notes: ‘if Maureen ever had a child it’d be born in uniform with a tommy gun for a rattler’). Although there is a feminine anti-violence view through Molly, Sellars’ performance tends to dominate, and elevates Maureen within the film.

It might be obvious that although I liked much of the film, it does struggle in the middle to balance the melodrama of the Matt/Terry/Maureen relationship with its interest in being a tense crime thriller. One of the most curious additions, given that generic focus, is the bookends provided by the characters Dr. Brannigan (Joseph Tomelty) and Henry Truethorn (Gilbert Harding), elderly gentlemen (one Irish, one English) engaged in a seemingly interminable argument/squabble over the Irish-English relationship. These are comic characters – the film opens with them blustering and bickering over a chess game – but they are pulled into the action when Matt, Terry and an injured Johnny burst in on Brannigan’s surgery (during another round of the same argument). Even when taken prisoner and locked in a storehouse, Brannigan and Truethorn continue their comic bickering and, at the end, the film returns to them, still debating, still playing a game of chess. The film has come full circle to these men, and ends with the following salutation:

T: ‘To England, where the situation may be serious, but is never hopeless'
B: ‘To Ireland, where the situation is always hopeless, but never serious’

So, the film ends on an indecisive political note (matching the balance it has tried to maintain throughout), and an uncertain generic one, stuck between drama (serious) and comedy (never serious): as the comic banter of Brannigan and Truethorn continues, the camera switches back to Terry and Matt, two brothers fading away into the Irish countryside, walking away from the garage, from the IRA, from Maureen, and (presumably) from any solid answers to the English/Irish question.

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