Directed by Basil Dearden and written by Roger MacDougall, adapted from his play of the same name, in 1941, in wartime U.K., two Irish brothers working for the I.R.A. come against their local leader’s ruthless methods. Starring: John Mills, Dirk Bogarde, Robert Beatty, Elizabeth Sellars, Barbara Mullen, Eddie Byrne, Joseph Tomelty, Liam Redmond and James Kenney.
Some things are simply quintessential with classic film and one of them appears at the very start of The Gentle Gunman, a dramatic, booming, opulent score, in this case from John Greenwood. It works so perfectly with the pace of this film, it’s unexpectedly fast for a feature from 1950s. You would imagine that starting out in such drastic fashion would make it hard to maintain for its remaining seventy minutes but not at all. It’s an interesting take on the lines people are willing to cross for their cause, there’s a huge conflict at its centre but it never overplays its hand. Again, it’s quite surprising for its time, with pictures often tending to go for the more melodramatic, it bucks the typical style and contains its drama mostly in conversation with the odd turn of action thrown in.
There’s two standout choices in the style of MacDougall’s writing, the first is including two older gentlemen debating different perspectives, quickly exploring how conflict looks differently to those within and without. It adds a tone of discussion and takes the feel of the stage to the screen, asking you to see the larger picture. The second is the inclusion of Maureen, played by Elizabeth Sellars, while usually women would simply be romantic fodder in her place, what she brings feels much more like an example of how people can be indoctrinated to a cause. Her entire perspective is framed by success in an arbitrary way, she’s immediately drawn to whomever she’s being told is serving their ideals, which is easily changed. You could dismiss this as a flighty or self-serving attitude but it genuinely feels like there’s a lot of layers to be found within her character’s decisions and opinions. Of course, it doesn’t have the time to delve into the much more complicated issue of Ireland’s history of conflict but it plants the seeds enough to work.
Combining John Mills, Dirk Bogarde and Robert Beatty was a huge recipe for success, they all have presence, authority and strength. While Mills plays with the more ethical questions, steadfast in his beliefs of what’s right and wrong, Bogarde takes the younger card, forced to decide what his beliefs are while being bombarded from all sides. Beatty goes down a much more known bad guy route but that doesn’t mean he’s any less of a joy to watch. The larger surprise in this cast comes from Barbara Mullen, portraying the fierce mother wanting to protect her son from a world that will likely lead to his demise. It’s rare to have such an outspoken female character, especially one who isn’t viewed through a derogatory lens, she’s grounded and committed, rather than being shown as obstinate or overprotective, it’s a refreshing sight.
The Gentle Gunman is a fast paced drama with action and intrigue. It takes an extremely complex topic and boils it down to capture the basic debate and conflict. This film will tick all the boxes for any classic film fan, a stellar cast with a fantastic score and a strong story. Last but not least, all of that is improved further by the great restoration work which adds a wonderful clarity and enhances the detail in a very satisfying way. An underseen gem from Ealing Studios and well worth catching up with.