BAFTA Winner: Best British Actor (Richard Attenborough); BAFTA Nominee for Best British Art Direction & Cinematography.
Uneven but extremely well-cast drama captures the still-relevant topic of the frictions between changing regimes in a post-colonial country, and the responsibility / culpability of western powers in supporting despotic and propped-up puppet regimes.
TV screenwriter Robert Holles adapted his novel “The Siege of Battersea” into a play-like script where a British base in a newly independent African country is overtaken by so-called rebels, while their leader manages a coup in various cities. Most of the action takes place inside the officer’s mess, with tensions building towards an inevitable confrontation between career officer Sgt. Major Lauderdale (Richard Attenborough) and newly-minted rebel leader Lieut. Boniface (Errol John).
The drama’s mounting tension is also enhanced by the arrival of a humanistic, chain-smoking British Senator (Flora Robson), and wily Private Wilkes (John Leyton), a transfer soldier travelling with a U.N. secretary (Mia Farrow, in her feature film debut) he very much intends to bed when opportunity knocks.
Fox produced the film in Britain, and with the exception of establishing shots in Africa (and a few stock shots of unruly city mobs), everything was filmed at Pinewood Studios – quite a feat, given the grey British sky often looms above the imported palm trees and realistic exterior sets. The nighttime material is less convincing, and there are times when the recorded dialogue bears the trademark echo of a really big soundstage, but the performances manage to sustain the illusion of British subjects potentially in danger of being slaughtered during a carefully orchestrated coup.
The real star of the drama is Attenborough, who gives one of his finest performances – perhaps his best – as a loud, by-the-book bullhorn who drives his men crazy by the minute with his bluster and incessant romancing of war. Without the coup, Lauderdale may have remained a caricature, but once the men and two women are in danger, Attenborough switches the character into professional mode, grasping the situation with sane, steady hands like a trained serviceman with years of experience dealing with conflicts throughout Asia, South Asia, and Africa.
Lauderdale is every bit as good as he presents himself, and the highpoint is the meeting between Lauderdale and Boniface who argue over protocol, key demands, and exchange mouthfuls of weighty insults. Outrage flies between the two, and the film does pause for a few extra speeches on the ‘outrageous’ conduct of war mongers (Robson’s moment is particularly pungent, but effective), but there’s frankness in the writing that’s far more critical of the colonial system than in most dramas of the era.
Cynicism is also quite prominent in the script, hence the wry finale where conflict is averted through a simple political realignment of regime allegiances, ensuring British colonial interests continue in a lesser, if not more symbolic form. Robson’s character clearly represents contemporary (and naive) humanism, while Lauderdale’s waxing of noble military pursuits are peppered with unbridled racism that’s only tempered by professional respect for any worthy opponent.
Less successful are odd comedic exchanges, and a silly love interest between Private Wilkes and pretty U.N. typist Karen Eriksson. According to Leyton’s commentary track, the two roles were heavily chopped down for pacing and tone, but the two characters really have no reason to exist in the film except as a marginal eye candy.
John Addison’s music is also rather schizophrenic. Not unlike King Solomon’s Mines (1950) or Mogambo (1953), the credits begin with thunderous African drums, but the arresting music quick cross-fades to a march that’s wholly supportive of British imperialism. The march is also shoved into an otherwise intense scene where Lauderdale and his men raid the armory while surrounded by Boniface’s men: the mixed score is initially dramatic, but during the escape someone decided to bring back the march which ruins the scene’s finale. It may well have been John Addison’s decision, as the composer scored the Attenborough-directed A Bridge Too Far (1977) with a repetitive march, but at least the dramatic underscore within Batasi, when it appears, is effective.
Fox’s DVD features a generally steady commentary track (at least for the first two-thirds) by supporting actor John Leyton, who comments on several aspects of the production including casting, filming, and bits of ephemera, such as the initial casting of Britt Ekland who was replaced a week into filming by Farrow when the former’s then-husband Peter Sellers wanted her out of the picture due to potential fears of potential infidelity; and sketches of his superb costars, including Jack Hawkins, who played a minor supporting role while afflicted by throat cancer (and would lose his wonderful, gravely voice soon after). Guns was Leyton’s second major film after The Great Escape (1963), and the actor would also appear in the WWII prison escape film Von Ryan’s Express (1965) for Fox.
The film transfer is okay, but could’ve been sharper without the extra Fox Flix trailers packed into the DVD, and the unnecessary bullshit stereo track. Pity Attenborough wasn’t available to join Leyton, but Guns still holds its own as the effects of colonialism and allegiances continue to pepper news reports every few years.
John Guillermin’s other two films for Fox include the psychological drama Rapture [M] (1965) and the WWI fighter pilot drama The Blue Max (1966).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan