Category Archives: David Niven

Guns of Darkness

I’ve been making an effort lately to see more new films, or perhaps I should say new to me rather than newly produced movies. Through a combination of blind buys and recommendations from others I’ve been trying to expand my horizons somewhat instead of simply returning to comfortable old favorites. Inevitably, some have worked better for me than others, but I have to say I’ve had no total disappointments yet. The latest is Guns of Darkness (1962), a polished British political thriller by Anthony Asquith. Actually, it’s more of a human drama set against the backdrop of a volatile political situation in a fictional South American state.

New Year’s Eve, out with the old and in with the new. As the minutes tick down towards the end of the old year time is also running short for certain individuals, but in a slightly more dramatic fashion. Some are thinking only of parties, of song and dance and celebration, others are planning to set off fireworks of an altogether more lethal kind. Tom Jordan (David Niven) is attending a company do with his French wife, Claire (Leslie Caron), and he’s not having a good time. Frankly, Jordan isn’t having much of a time in life in general; he’s a deeply dissatisfied man, contemptuous of his job, ambitious for something he can’t quite define, and on the down slope of a marriage. At the stroke of midnight the revelers, even the reluctant ones like Jordan, link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, the image of their full-blooded rendition intercut with the very different scenes taking place simultaneously outside of their insulated little world. All across the city the streets ring with the sound of army boots on stone, and gunshots and screams. A coup is underway, a swift and bloody change of regime, and will be more or less complete by the time the sun rises on the new year. The aftermath is to be seen next morning, uncertainty and the meting out of retribution mean normal life and the routine of business are put on hold. Returning home early, his mind still reeling from his having witnessed a summary execution, Jordan is about to face a wife who’s both pregnant and on the point of leaving him. However, before Claire has the chance to tell her husband anything, he discovers an unexpected interloper – soon to be ex-President Rivera (David Opatoshu) has crawled wounded into the car of the doctor visiting Claire. Sometimes those who drift rudderless through life find direction or purpose quite unexpectedly, and such seems to be the fate of Jordan. Whatever other failings he may have, he’s a humanitarian at heart, and a man like that really has no option but to follow his instincts under the circumstances. And so the race, and consequent pursuit, is on – Jordan and an initially unwitting Claire find themselves running for the border with the ailing Rivera in tow, their lives and his in grave danger.

Guns of Darkness is packaged as a combination of political thriller and chase drama yet the politics play only a minor role – if anything, it’s the dehumanizing aspect of politics which is critiqued. Little is made of the differences between Rivera and his usurpers, in fact the point is made that they have much in common in terms of the degree of ruthlessness they are prepared to exercise. This is the stuff of broad brush strokes though, window dressing in a sense, and essentially an adjunct to the main theme of the movie. The long trek and accompanying adventures are really just stops along the journey Jordan embarks upon towards emotional maturity and redemption. If anything, Guns of Darkness represents the process of self-discovery of a previously jaded and unfocused man. We’re presented with a guy who has spent his life running away from responsibilities and sneering at everything or everybody he felt was beneath him, and we watch as he comes to realize he’s been running from himself and that the contempt was a mask for indecisiveness. By the end, all that fog has been banished to be replaced by a feeling of purpose and the emergence of a man of true character, a soul reclaimed and renewed.

There was a good deal of talent behind the camera for this film: director Anthony Asquith, who made some fine British films in his time including the underrated The Woman in Question, writer John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, and cameraman Robert Krasker with both The Third Man and Odd Man Out on his extensive résumé. The opening sequence blending the New Year celebrations and the violence of the coup is wonderfully shot with Asquith and Krasker coming up with an excellent selection of angles and lighting setups. There’s plenty of moody noir style photography on view throughout the movie and good use of the Spanish locations, which stood in for South America. A film like Guns of Darkness necessarily involves a fair number of talky scenes but these rarely bog the action down too much and anyway there’s typically enough tension woven into the story to ensure things keep moving along – the station wagon becoming trapped in quicksand and the ensuing struggle to get free being a notable example.

I think the nature of the story, insofar as one can define it through the leading character, is clearly British or European. What I mean is that US films tend to present a more clear-cut lead, typically a man of action or at least one who is more certain of his place in the world. The character of Jordan doesn’t fall into this category, and David Niven was an excellent choice to play him. One usually has an image of Niven as a debonair type, smooth with others and comfortable with himself. While those were qualities he could effortlessly bring to the screen he was capable of a far broader range too when the occasion demanded it. Guns of Darkness sees Niven wholly uncomfortable, at war with himself and those around him, and not really sure why. As soon as Rivera crashes into his life he finds himself taking increasingly bigger risks, and with only the vaguest idea of what his ultimate purpose is. There’s a good deal of subtlety in Niven’s performance, his growing self-awareness coming on gradually and naturally. When he eventually finds he has to resort to the violence he so despises, Niven’s reaction is beautifully judged and there’s suitable attention paid to the consequences of his actions too. And that’s another point in the movie’s favor in my opinion, the violence that takes place is handled with the kind of gravity it deserves.

The picture is basically a three-hander with Niven, Leslie Caron and David Opatoshu receiving the lion’s share of screen time. Caron’s part called for a display of stoicism – there are plenty of physical challenges to be faced as events unfold – and also honest expression of the kind of conflicting emotions experienced by a woman still in love with the man she hopes her husband can be, even as she’s coming to terms with the knowledge that he’ll never be perfect. Opatoshu had one of those roles here it must have been tempting to portray him as a saintly humanitarian, but that was fortunately resisted in favor of making him a more three-dimensional figure. The moment when we realize he’s capable of great cruelty in the name of survival is shocking and at the same time curiously liberating; the result is that we understand we’re looking at a real human being, not simply some idealized caricature. In support, there’s worthwhile work done by James Robertson Justice, Sandor Eles, Ian Hunter and Eleanor Summerfield among others.

Network in the UK have been steadily releasing significant numbers of movies over the last couple of years under their The British Film banner.  Guns of Darkness is one of those titles and it’s the kind of film which would otherwise still be languishing in relative obscurity, although I see it’s also been made available in the US via the Warner Archive. The Network DVD presents the movie in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print looks strong for the most part although there are a few minor blemishes here an there. This is the kind of film I really appreciate having the opportunity to see and it’s gratifying to have it in good condition. I found the tale a solid and quite engrossing one, peopled with characters who felt credible and authentic, and put together by talented professionals both behind and in front of the camera. Anyone who enjoys a well crafted thriller with some depth should get value from this film.



Posted by on August 2, 2015 in 1960s, David Niven


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55 Days at Peking


I generally steer clear of writing about huge sprawling epics on this blog, but that’s not to say I don’t like them. As it happens I’m extremely fond of such films and often feel that it’s a near impossible task to do them justice in a relatively short write up. When I was growing up the Samuel Bronston movies were always a source of marvellous entertainment to me, and represented some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on film. So, when I realised this would be my hundredth post here I thought maybe it was time to turn my attention for once to a genuinely big film. I could have chosen El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire but opted instead for one of the so-called lesser Bronston’s, 55 Days at Peking (1963).

The action takes place in the summer of 1900, during the latter stages of the Boxer Rebellion, when the foreign legations in Peking came under siege. Without wanting to get mired in historical detail, it seems safe to say that the Boxers found their roots in a sense of unease over the growing foreign influence in China. At the time this influence was most apparent in the area of religion, with Christianity usurping the local variety. The movie opens with a brief voiceover narration to the accompaniment of a cacophony of national anthems assaulting the eardrums. After a little more exposition in the Forbidden City, the camera cuts to the arrival of a column of dusty and weary US marines. At their head is the swaggering figure of Major Lewis (Charlton Heston), no mean feat while still on horseback. That the situation in China is spiralling out of control is immediately obvious when we see an English priest, strapped to a water wheel, being slowly tortured to death. Lewis’ attempts to buy the priest fail and the only thing he and his men accomplish is the killing of a Boxer. From here events move inexorably towards the inevitable crisis. Despite the best efforts of the British minister, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), a state of war is fast approaching. In the midst of the mounting chaos Lewis finds himself drawn into a romance with a Russian aristocrat of dubious reputation (Ava Gardner). This slow build up occupies the first half of the film and it is quite heavy going. However, there are some visually impressive set pieces, such as the confrontation with a Boxer “theatrical” group during the Queen’s birthday celebrations, to keep it from becoming totally bogged down.

It’s only with the murder of the German envoy that things start to heat up on the screen. This is the point where the real action and spectacle take centre stage. Lewis’ romance starts to fade into the background as all attention is focused on the ever more desperate attempts to defend the foreign compound from wave after wave of attacks from the fanatical Boxers. It’s these marvellously choreographed scenes of pitched battles along the ramparts that really breathe life into the movie. The maniacal determination of the Chinese to breach the foreign defences forces the besieged men to come up with ever more ingenious ways to repel them. When the Boxers wheel a massive tower laden with explosives up to the perimeter, and proceed to bombard the exposed compound below, there’s a wonderful scene wherein a French priest (Harry Andrews) with a suspiciously strong Irish brogue supervises the construction of an improvised mortar to lob fireballs back at them. While this all sounds slightly deranged on paper it’s filmed and performed with enough style and conviction to remain gripping and tense throughout. Even though the seemingly endless assaults and counterattacks make for great cinema in themselves, there’s also a well filmed sequence of a night time raid on the Chinese arsenal which concludes with a magnificent and explosive payoff. The only false note is having the British minister tool up and join the raiding party on their sortie – although I’m guessing it was done to give David Niven the chance to get away from pottering fretfully around his study.

Take my hand - Charlton Heston in 55 Days at Peking

One of the pleasures of watching the epic movies from this era is the knowledge that the sheer scale of the production wasn’t anything but real. Nowadays, in the age of CGI, the thought of something as financially prohibitive as building a full size replica of the besieged compound and filling it with literally thousands of swarming extras would be enough to give the average studio executive palpitations, if not an outright seizure. However, the fact that what you see on the screen in a movie like this is real and has actual physical mass adds something indefinable, a quality that’s now been lost. Somehow the very knowledge that you can now create pretty much any image imaginable on screen rubs away a little of the magic for me. To all intents and purposes 55 Days at Peking was Nicholas Ray’s last film, having walked away leaving it incomplete after one argument too many with Bronston he suffered a heart attack. It’s not his best work by any means and I don’t believe he was ideally suited to these kinds of large scale productions. Still, the striking use of colour throughout does seem to bear his hallmark. As far as the performers are concerned it’s Heston’s film all the way. Chuck was in the middle of that purple patch that would last another decade and he stamps his authority all over this picture. Though to be fair, while the film doesn’t develop his character to any meaningful degree it does offer ample opportunity for the kind of iconic posing only he could pull off convincingly. David Niven’s quiet, gentlemanly dignity is a welcome contrast (his casual flicking aside of the kneeling cushion when summoned before the Dowager Empress is a beautifully understated moment), and he even manages to make some fairly trite dialogue sound credible by adopting just the right amount of earnestness – a true professional. Ava Gardner was nearing the end of her days as a leading lady at this point and her performance is adequate but nothing more. I understand that she didn’t get along particularly well with Heston (they certainly don’t have a lot of on screen chemistry) so that may be part of the problem. Finally, a word about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; his style is not to everyone’s taste and he’s sometimes criticised for being excessively bombastic, but I like it a lot and think it’s perfectly suited to this kind of larger than life movie.

55 Days at Peking is available on DVD from a number of sources worldwide, and the edition I have is one I picked up in Greece years ago. It was released on the PCV label and it’s got a fine anamorphic scope transfer that doesn’t suffer from any major damage or colour fading. The image is progressive and doesn’t look to me like it’s been manipulated excessively. I’ve had a look at the screencaps on the Beaver’s site and I’m fairly confident that my copy looks a good deal stronger than the Japanese one featured there. It’s R2 PAL, of course, and runs at 156 minutes including the overture, intermission, entre’acte and exit music. It’s a shame that reports of poor sales seem to have halted further releases in R1 of the Miriam Collection since the Bronston titles already out in that line are probably the best on the market. This is a movie that’s been neglected in more ways than one over the years and critics have rarely had many positive things to say about it. It is probably overlong and could use a little trimming in the first half, the use of Caucasian actors in the major Chinese roles is possibly a source of annoyance for some, but I still enjoy the movie immensely. Perhaps the fact that it’s a throwback to that vanished era of large scale, no holds barred filmmaking adds to its charm for me. I recommend it if you can get your hands on a decent copy.


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