Monday 1 July 2013

The Bofors Gun [1968]

THE BOFORS GUN is a British drama that was directed by Jack Gold and originally released in April 1968.  It was adapted for the screen by John McGrath, from his own play "Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun".  It stars David Warner, Nicol Williamson, Ian Holm, John Thaw and Peter Vaughan.  Long unavailable and hence of great interest to me, THE BOFORS GUN has recently resurfaced on DVD and I'm happy to report that, unlike a lot of obscure and 'lost' films, it is a quality piece of work.  The film is set on a British military base in Germany in 1954 and deals with a small group of soldiers on night guard.

It's worthy of your attention for two main reasons.  First, it represents an opportunity to see a fine ensemble cast strut their stuff, in particular the mesmerising Nicol Williamson.  Williamson, who died a couple of years ago in semi-obscurity, was arguably the finest actor of his generation; John Osborne described him as "the finest actor since Brando".  To modern audiences, whether they recognise his name or not, he's most familiar as Merlin in John Boorman's lavish but eccentric EXCALIBUR [1981] but in the 1960s his name was usually mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Tom Courtenay - that group of classically-trained actors who had made the breakthrough to film stardom.

Nicol Williamson as Gunner O'Rourke
There's a good case for saying Williamson was the best of the lot but, unlike those actors mentioned above, what Williamson never had was the one defining role that would have firmly established his name with cinema audiences the world over.  There's a suspicion too that perhaps he just wasn't good looking enough to cut it as a movie star.  Which is desperately unfair of course but indicative of how a successful movie career can sometimes be based on little more than luck and a good bone structure.  Such things are less important in the theatre and Williamson's stage work was extremely highly regarded.  His signature role was Bill Maitland in Osborne's "Inadmissible Evidence", a part which (from what I can gather anyway, since the film version in which Williamson recreates his stage performance is also one of those movies that just seems to have disappeared) is virtually one great howl of rage by a man right at the end of his tether.

From L to R: David Warner, Richard O'Callaghan, Donald Gee, Nicol Williamson, John Thaw
Williamson also had a reputation for belligerence and being hard to handle.  To what extent that is justified is very difficult to say; certainly his obituaries routinely cited instances of obstreperous behaviour but surely over the course of a long career most actors will be guilty of that from time to time.  Nevertheless, as Gunner Danny O'Rourke in THE BOFORS GUN, Williamson found a part which played to his strengths both as an actor and a human being.  That was no accident however; John McGrath had written the role with him in mind.  O'Rourke is an aggressive, unstable Irishman who has chosen this one night to have the mother of all breakdowns.

The second reason why THE BOFORS GUN is interesting is because it was written by John McGrath.  McGrath was very much in the tradition of post-war leftist British writers and directors and like others of that stable, for example Ken Loach, he cut his teeth in the early 60s on episodes of the British TV police drama Z CARS.  Like the army, the police force is a highly stratified organisation that to writers represents fertile ground for exploring themes of power, class and identity.  And it is these ideas which McGrath is considering in THE BOFORS GUN.

Bombardier Evans enjoying some free time at a chamber concert...

...and O'Rourke enjoying some free time drinking heavily
The two poles of the narrative are O'Rourke - Irish, Catholic, working class, bellicose, unruly and impetuous but a commanding, domineering personality - and David Warner's Lance Bombardier Terry Evans - English, atheist, middle class, thoughtful, indecisive and, fatally, weak.  Both want to escape: O'Rourke has had enough of being told what to do and Evans wants to get back to England (the following morning) where he will be assessed for a potential commission.  O'Rourke has reached breaking point and as such is no longer under anyone's control, least of all his own, but Evans is reluctant to discipline him because he knows to do so would initiate a process that would prevent his departure.

O'Rourke and Featherstone (John Thaw): literally caged after they have released the regimental goat
There were a number of filmed plays released around this period: this, the aforementioned INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE [1968], and A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG [1972] (reviewed elsewhere on this site), among others.  A dozen or so were released under the banner of the American Film Theatre collection, films made expressly to capture for posterity landmark theatre productions.  Once you accept them for what they are, you can get past the fact that they are driven by dialogue rather than incident.  That's certainly true of THE BOFORS GUN which is also claustrophobic but that too is intentional.

Still penned in: Evans and O'Rourke
David Warner now appears in a good many horror and science fiction movies, chiefly as baddies, so it is easy to forget that, earlier in his career, he was one of the most highly regarded young British actor.  His versatility is remarkable, encompassing Shakespeare, Ibsen, swinging 60s comedies, period dramas, Nazis and even surviving two brushes with Sam Peckinpah.  Although he has gone on to have a very busy career in delirious cinema, Warner's time as a leading man was all too short so it's worth tracking this film down to see him strut his stuff opposite Nicol Williamson.

David Warner as Evans
Richard O'Callaghan, who plays the dimwitted Roe, is an actor who has mainly worked on the stage; indeed, at least three of his film credits are screen adaptations of stage productions, including this one and Harold Pinter's excellent BUTLEY [1974]. Geoffrey Hughes, who has a 30-second cameo, was a much-loved British character actor, first in the soap opera CORONATION STREET and latterly in the sitcoms KEEPING UP APPEARANCES and THE ROYLE FAMILY.

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