February 1, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: The League of Gentlemen

by Vadim Rizov

The League of Gentlemen

The League of Gentlemen In 1957, Jack Hawkins led a coordinated Allied attack on The Bridge on the River Kwai, and three years later, he led a coordinated private attack on a British bank. The film was The League of Gentlemen (included in Basil Dearden's London Underground, a smashing new box set from Criterion/Eclipse), in which Hawkins rounds up seven equally unpleasant, mostly meta-cast men to assist. The recruits comprise a microcosm of various, superficially resilient members of the British way of post-war life. One is Nigel Patrick, perhaps best known at that point as a mindlessly brave test pilot in The Sound Barrier, a sacrificial lamb to the stiff-upper-limb ethos to the last. He's Hawkins' aide, clinging to his pre-war aristocratic status by being paternally glib to the other men and looking foolish in the process. Other members: Terence Alexander (in real life a member of the 27th Lancers, wounded in combat), Roger Livesey (star of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and hence the self-conscious representative of the prototypical British soldier, however satirically), and already respected screenwriters Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes (the latter of whom also served as this film's writer).

The League of Gentlemen Here's a cast of ex-Queen's Men, all trained to wreak specialized military havoc, recruited for skills they learned at the army's expense. Peacetime has served them ill, as it has the reluctant gangland soldiers of They Made Me a Fugitive, Flamingo Road and other films about angry demobilized British soldiers who miss the excitement of war. Hawkins is smug, big-chinned and annoyingly all-knowing and all-judging: his men aren't unjustly scorned, but endlessly flawed. (The flaws are a product of their time: the convicted homosexual is portrayed with as much scorn as the guy convicted of gross public indecency.) All are shown in one snippet of private life apiece: thereafter, they're members of a corps once more, their individuality reduced to a war movie's sacrificial platoon of standard types, all rendered seedier by post-war life. There's the horny one, the hen-pecked husband, the slimy gigolo, etc. Their social and professional positions make no difference; when it comes down to the final raid, they're all equalized by bullets.

To bring the men together, Hawkins sends out invitations to a business lunch and comes late: until his arrival, the increasingly uneasy men are considering leaving. (Shades of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, where ten criminals are invited to an island getaway by the sinister "U.N. Owen," or "unknown." It ends badly.) Once Hawkins shows, we're in firm caper territory, as the men execute a series of "missions"—studying 16mm footage of their bank target, constructing smoke bombs, stealing trucks and equipment from an army base—in a barracks-like retreat. The point is to immerse themselves back in the military mindset of "a bloody good war"; their heist succeeds, partly by creating warlike conditions on peacetime streets.

The League of Gentlemen Unlike the cycle of post-war British noirs (more cynical and desperate), League is Ealing with a twist. It was a hand-me-down project: as Alan Burton and Tim O'Sullivan note in their book The Cinema of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, it originated on commission for American screenwriter/producer Carl Foreman (High Noon, The Guns of Navarone). It was a cheap production of some £192,000 and performed well. Burton and O'Sullvian note that the heist is an allegory for the film's production—quick-witted irregulars profitably thumb their nose at the establishment—but it's also exactly what it presents itself as: a group of disaffected British film industry veterans who know they're on the verge of being pushed aside by equally angry but younger men. The World War II mentality, persisting 15 years later, overlooks the dreary '60s realities of industrial blight and pervasive drabness embodied in the same year's Saturday Night & Sunday Morning. It lingers in the '40s mentality rather than paying attention to the newest forms of disaffection.

Yet League tackles the same inert society, just from a different angle. Pleasurable as it is, the heist itself isn't the film's true focal point (as in, say, Ocean's Eleven) or the inherent venality and untrustworthiness of men (as in umpteen heists from The Asphalt Jungle onwards). The men carry out their mission with the expected military precision. But the real fun comes in one of the most remarkable post-heist third acts on record. Without spoilers, things fall apart in large part due to the blithering intrusion of one Brigadier "Bunny" Warren (Robert Coote). The League of GentlemenHere the heavily ironic title meets its match: an old-school, blithering military man whose nickname hearkens back to the Victorian era and the Boer War. Bunny was most famously a name associated with the companion of Victorian burglar A.J. Raffles; both men eventually shipped off to that colonial conflict to do their patriotic duty. Nowadays, the Boer War is not remembered as one of Britain's more justified military excursions, and Brigadier Bunny is a tiresome drunken blowhard, whose "good war" was clearly nothing like the league's.

As the clock ticks down and he blathers on, you finally get the point: these fuming middle-aged men have as many pricks to kick against as any of John Osborne's ticked-off youth. That The League of Gentlemen makes all that despair and decay a crackling entertainment is its biggest achievement.

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Posted by ahillis at February 1, 2011 2:51 PM