Saturday Matinee — Guns at Batasi

Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 5.15.07 PMAs it happens, the guns don’t have a very central role in Guns at Batasi, but it’s an interesting tale of an unusual period — the early 60s, when Britain was fleeing its overseas responsibilities, first East of Suez and then everywhere, and when African nations were taking their first steps towards independence and the classically African political institution: one man, one vote, one time. This interesting, forgotten black and white drama deserves wider viewership and appreciation.

Batasi Camp is the regimental home of the “2nd African Rifles,” a unit where a British commander, officers and key NCOs mentor African native other ranks and emergent officers. The two key Britons are the commander, Colonel Deal, ably played by Jack Hawkins, and RSM Lauderdale, played with eye-popping uptightness (and snap-cracking dialogue) by Richard Attenborough. Had Attenborough not done dozens of these things, you could call it the role of a lifetime, but of course he did; so you are never ill advised to pull out an obscure DVD from the $5 “fin bin” if his name is on the marquee.

In this case, a mostly bloodless coup leaves the officers isolated in their mess, the colonel away to consult at the embassy, and the sergeants isolated, and nearly unarmed, in the sergeants’ mess, with some unexpected visitors: Private Wilkes (John Leyton), a day from demobilization from his National Service; a comely UN worker, Karen Eriksson (Mia Farrow) who has taken a shine to Wilkes; a traveling lady MPm Miss Barker-Wise (Flora Robson) who has strong opinions about the Africans’ readiness for self-rule, and equally strong and far more negative opinions of military men; and Captain Abraham (Earl Cameron), the former senior African officer, now wounded and hunted by the coup leaders.

Attenborough and LeytonWe have already seen Attenborough establish several aspects of RSM Lauderdale’s complex facets. That he is a martinet, and often the butt of behind-his-back snark from the sergeants, is shown to the viewer, rather than told to them. So is his unflinching character. Likewise, the tension in the country is shown, rather than told, to us, as Wilkes and Eriksson make their way through a hostile mob.

The dialogue rules here. Here are three prize pronunciamentos of Lauderdale:

  • “Let me tell you. There’s no alteration, no celebration. No argumentation, no qualification in this mess that escapes my eyes! Read, learn, and inwardly bloody digest!”
  • “I have seen Calcutta. I have eaten camel dung. My knees are brown, my navel is central, my conscience is clear, and my will is with my solicitors, Short and Curly.” (He says it in such a manner that you can’t quite be sure whether he’s referred to his “will” or to his “willy.”)
  • “I can always stomach a good soldier whatever his faults! What I can’t stomach are Bolshies, skivers, scrimshanks, and boghouse barristers! I’ve broken more of them than you’ve had eggs for breakfast! If I take a likin’ to you, lad, I’ll be your good friend and counselor. If you offend me, I’ll pull out your sausage-like intestines, hang ’em round your neck, and prick ’em every so often like they do real sausages!”

The guns that don’t play a very large part in the movie, actually, are all accurate, with one possible question. There are a mixed bag of then-current British arms (SLR, Stirling) and WWII arms that a colonial army base might have had (Brens, and we see No. 4 Enfields in racks). The one questionable arm is the presence of two 40mm Bofors guns in what’s supposed, after all, to be a rifle unit. Usually, specialty antiaircraft weapons like that are the province of AA Artillery units. But the Bofors guns play a very important part in the plot of the film.

Using sheer bluff and force of Attenborough’s character, the sergeants mount a raid on the arms room, arming themseves with BREN guns, grenades and Sterlings (prior to this, they are only armed with Wilkes’s L1A1 SLR). After they bluff their way past the guard on the facility, RSM Lauderdale derides him to the others: “That one’ll never make an NCO. No initiative.” He is, in fact, always thinking about the future of the Army and the Regiment, and these small asides are the mortar in the wall of believability that he builds for his character. (In several of them, he’s trying to persuade Wilkes to re-enlist).

Soon the plot’s local leader, Lt. Boniface, discovers that the sergeants are hiding Abraham and demands him, the arms, and — in a telling description of his character, and most of the real-world African leaders on whom he’s based — the regimental silver. He gets the silver, but Abraham has been offered the protection of the sergeants’ mess, and they will give him up only over their dead bodies. Boniface is coool with that and has two Bofors guns with which he intends to reduce the mess building t rubble if his ultimatum is not satisfied.

It falls to Attenborough and a volunteer — if one can be found — to mount a raid on the Bofors guns, to take Boniface’s strongest pieces off the chess board.

Meanwhile, the British Embassy is frantically negotiating with the new government.

There is quite a bit of drama and quite a few surprises, and the end is anticlimactic, but realistically so. It seems that some good deeds, in the dark and confused world of the early 1960s, cannot go unpunished. Some outcomes can shake even a sergeant major, but in the end, the righteousness of his decisions, however much they have caused his superiors political problems, are reinforced by the respected Col. Deal announcing that he’d have done the very same thing.

We leave RSM Lauderdale as we found him, then: strutting across the parade ground, the model of a sergeant major. Bravo to the cast and crew, particularly Attenborough, director John Guillermin, and screenwriter Robert Holles (based on his own novel), who put those remarkable quote in Attenborough’s capable hands for delivery.