The Irish “Troubles” have gone through many stages of development, and most of those stages have been represented on film down the years. That little island on the periphery of Europe which, despite long absences, I still call home seems to exist in a permanent state of conflict. Although there are sporadic outbreaks of peace, one always feels that it’s only a matter of time before we retreat behind our respective barricades once again. The Gentle Gunman (1952) is set in the border country during WWII, a period of relative calm when compared to the frenzied blood-lust that overtook us in the 70s and 80s, and deals with those themes that go to the very heart of the Irish character – loyalty, betrayal and identity. I suppose it could be said that the film simplifies things a little, but that’s a criticism that can be levelled at a lot of movies. In fact, I always think it’s a bit unfair to fault filmmakers too much in that regard since trying to explain or understand the complexity of the conflict in Ireland, even for those of us who lived through the worst of the horrors, is an almost impossible task. The Gentle Gunman, by boiling the politics down to its essentials and focusing on two brothers, does a fair enough job.
Terry Sullivan (John Mills) is an IRA man who has been living in London for some time. When rumours start to drift back to the old country that Terry may have turned, his younger brother Matt (Dirk Bogarde) decides to pay him a visit and see if such slights on the family honour are justified. To his horror, Matt discovers that what he’s been hearing may well be true - Terry is no longer trusted and, in the aftermath of a botched bombing, seems to have become (that lowest of words in the Irish vocabulary) an informer. The arrest of two gang members is too much for Matt, and he warns his brother that if he values his life he’ll not set foot across the Irish Sea. However, Terry wouldn’t be much of an Irishman if weren’t stubborn and contrary, so he comes back to the land of his birth and the not so welcoming arms of former friends and relations. The roads and lanes along the Irish border have seen more than their fair share of death. The usual outcome of a charge of informing was a brief inquiry and a sentence handed down by a kangaroo court, before a man was taken for his last walk down a lonely road at dawn to get a bullet in the head and be dumped in a ditch. Why, therefore, would anyone take such a risk? The answer in this case is the bond of kinship. Terry sees that his younger brother is being groomed for a life on the run by local commander Shinto (Robert Beatty) and his own former fiancee, the fanatically patriotic Maureen (Elizabeth Sellars). The question is whether Terry can haul his brother back from the brink and prove his own innocence before his comrades in arms decide to dispose of him.
John Mills was at his peak when this film was made and it seemed he couldn’t put a foot wrong. He’d reached the age where he was perfect for the kind of roles that called for an idealism that had been tempered by bitter experience. The ability to convey much while seeming to do very little has always been the mark of the best actors and Mills had it in spades. At his best he was wonderful to watch, the cast of his eye or the fleeting shadow of a smile or a grimace saying so much more than pages of dialogue ever could. His Terry Sullivan is a first class combination of bravado and nervy unease that’s entirely appropriate for a man walking the tightrope of self doubt and political duplicity. Dirk Bogarde, here at the height of his matinee idol period, is less satisfactory as the young man torn between loyalty to his brother and the idealism that has always formed the cornerstone of his existence. In short, he’s a bit wet but that’s as much a criticism of the script as Bogarde’s performance. That same year, Elizabeth Sellars appeared with Mills (again as a former lover as it happens) in The Long Memory, and I was less than complimentary about her. I think her limitations work in her favour here though, her immobile features fitting the character of a woman more in love with an idea than with any man. When Maureen (who’s clearly spent far too much time poring over the writings of Padraig Pearce) speaks with passion of the near sacred act of bloodletting, the only truly apt word to describe her is terrible. As usual in films of this period, the supporting cast does a sterling job. Robert Beatty is very believable as the tough OC with an unshakable self-belief. Joseph Tomelty is just great as the rural doctor dispensing wisdom while he carries on an amicable war of words with his old friend Gilbert Harding. These two add a touch of light humour and get to deliver a great last line that’s pure blarney.
Basil Dearden does fine work as director, moving the camera around enough to help disguise the fact that this is an adaptation of a stage play. The opening scenes in London have a noirish quality with lots of deep shadow and uncomfortable angles. He also handles the attempted Tube bombing well and cranks up the suspense by having a group of kids dart innocently around Dirk Bogarde’s lethal, explosive-laden suitcase – although he does use essentially the same device again during the later ambush in Belfast. For the most part though, the action is confined to the lonely border garage which doubles as the IRA HQ. Instead of letting this be an encumbrance, Dearden turns it to his advantage by using the limited space and some clever lighting to focus on the claustrophobic atmosphere and ratchet up the tension.
The Gentle Gunman has been released on DVD in the UK by Optimum only as part of the John Mills – Screen Icons set. Optimum can be variable in the quality of their transfers, but this is one of their better ones. It’s presented in its correct academy ratio and, despite some speckles and light damage, is mostly clear and crisp with excellent blacks and contrast levels. I’m not sure how much resonance this film would have with viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter. I think it does a good job of telling a very human story and the performances and visuals are hard to fault. Given my own Northern Irish background, I’m probably a little biased in my judgement – but I loved it. There’s a lot of honesty in this little film, and a lot of themes that still hold true over fifty years later. As such, I give it a big thumbs up and recommend it wholeheartedly.