The Bofors Gun (UK 1968)

This important British film was not easily available for many years until a UK Region 2 DVD appeared in 2012 from Odeon (It appears to be still available for rental from Cinema Paradiso in the UK). I believe the film was also screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014. Production began in 1967 with funding from the ill-fated ‘pot’ put together by Jay Kantner at Universal’s London office. Universal invested around $30 million over the next few years in a dozen British films, most of which turned out to be either expensive flops or critically-praised low budget films that failed to attract audiences. (See Alexander Walker’s Hollywood England, London: Harrap, 1974 p. 345). The Bofors Gun was in the latter category with an estimated production budget of $800,000. The production brought together writer (and director) John McGrath and director Jack Gold, both of whom were getting established in UK television drama and both of whom had strong progressive, Leftist politics. Based on McGrath’s stage play Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun (1966), the film has an outstanding cast. The narrative covers one night when a group of British soldiers are on guard duty at a military base in Northern Germany in 1954. In particular, they are guarding a Bofors gun.

David Warner as L/Bdr Evans

The Odeon DVD carries an interview with the prolific Jack Gold about his career (he died in August 2015 with 50+ film and TV directorial credits) plus a commentary on the film by Gold, ‘moderated’ by Steve Chibnall, one of the leading film scholars associated with British Cinema. I haven’t listened to the whole commentary, which is certainly interesting and useful, but Gold tells us that he missed National Service because of a medical condition. I don’t know if Steve Chibnall has any experience of the British Army, but this is a script clearly informed by McGrath’s National Service (1953-5?) and it does require some knowledge of Army procedures to fully comprehend all aspects of the narrative. I missed National Service by ten years or so (though my brother served) but at my school the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory and I spent several weeks at Army barracks in Brecon and in Scotland.

Ian Holm as Gunner Flynn

National Service in the UK meant the conscription of able-bodied men into military service after 1939. When the Second World War ended, Britain’s military commitments carried on and further legislation extended and formalised National Service for a period of up to two years (in practice, longer for some conscripts). What is now considered ‘National Service’ applied to all men born between 1928 and 1939 who were ‘called up’ between 1949 and 1960. The last conscript was able to go home in May 1963. In the last few years there has been a surge of interest in what National Service meant for the young men, for the armed forces and for UK society. I am using as a resource National Service: A Generation in Uniform, 1945-1963 by Richard Viner, Penguin 2014. My aim is to find as many filmic representations of National Service as possible. For those outside the UK, it is worth spelling out that although various forms of National Service/conscription have been common across many European and other countries for many years – and indeed some are still current – ‘conscription’, as Viner points out, has never been seen as part of the British tradition. The 1945-63 experience occurred at a particular time (the end of Empire) when the UK had military commitments across the world and National Servicemen fought alongside ‘regular soldiers’ in Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Cyprus and other places. This period was also one of great social change in the UK and this is also part of the National Service story.

Nicol Williamson as Gunner O’Rourke

Reviews of The Bofors Gun consistently refer to the gun itself as a ‘piece of obsolete kit’ – thus suggesting the absurdity of ‘guarding the gun’. I’m quite prepared to accept that the gun has a symbolic role in the narrative and that the script contains several references to jokes about the Russians and the Chinese and the nuclear threat which the gun is helpless to counteract. This is one of the main jibes against authority made by Gunner O’Rourke. On the other hand, the gun was not necessarily ‘obsolete’. A Swedish design from the 1930s, several thousand were built in the UK and Canada for anti-aircraft use in the Second World War. When it became apparent that the original design was useless against jet aircraft, the gun was redesigned and a new version used in various guises up until the 1990s. The Bofors Gun is, in many ways, a ‘realist’ representation of a night on guard duty in 1954.

Plot outline (no spoilers as such)

Lance-Bombardier (the Artillery version of Lance-Corporal) Terry Evans (David Warner) receives news that he is to attend a War Office Selection Board in London which he hopes will mean a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and an escape from the drudgery of life in the barracks room. He is due to travel to the UK the following day, but tonight he is the leader of the guard detail – six gunners (i.e. ‘privates’) who are expected to patrol in pairs on a freezing February night for two hours at a time throughout the night while the rest of the guard shelter in a hut. If anything should go wrong, Evans knows that he won’t get to the WOSB.

The four gunners in the guardroom talk about L/Bdr Evans as he takes a nap (from left Richard O’Callaghan, Donald Gee, Nicol Williamson, John Thaw).

Commentary

Certain facts are made clear in the dialogue. Others have to be gleaned more indirectly. Evans more or less tells us that he is a National Serviceman. He could only apply for a commission after six months, but if he is the ‘right material’ he could be commissioned and serve as a junior officer for around twelve months. Viner suggests that 3-4% of National Servicemen in the British Army were commissioned in this way. We know Evans is ‘different’ (the film begins with him as the only soldier in the audience for a classical music concert in the local town). We also learn that he is from Manchester and that his father “sells paraffin” in Wythenshawe. I think this makes him ‘petty-bourgeois’ or ‘lower middle-class’ (I’m assuming his father owns a shop). He could be working-class if his father is a shop-worker. But what is safe to assume, I think, is that Evans represents those later to benefit from the 1944 Butler Education Act and the establishment of grammar schools as part of the state education system. (He would be too old in 1954 to have got into one of the new grammar schools.) The emergence of grammar school boys amongst the conscripts for National Service caused the Army several headaches. Up until this point it had drawn its officers from the best ‘Public Schools’ – i.e. private schools such as Eton, Harrow etc. Public schoolboys had an expectation of receiving a commission during their National Service (after which they expected to go to university). The Army thought that the middle classes from industrial regions in the North were unsuitable as officers (too ‘insular’) and it was suspicious of the academically-gifted grammar school boys (not all of whom were keen on being officers). Viner spends a whole chapter on these issues and he points out that the Navy was more meritocratic and that the RAF commissioned the highest proportion of such young men. It seems clear to me that McGrath intended Evans to be a case study of the problems facing the grammar school boy in this context.

Initially, there is little indication which of the gunners are National Servicemen and which are ‘regular soldiers’ (i.e. professional soldiers who have ‘signed on’ for more than three years). All of the actors are too old to be raw National Service conscripts and, to confuse matters, John Thaw (Gunner Featherstone), the youngest of them (at 24 in 1966), was already well known to UK TV audiences as a military policeman in the series Redcap (ABC TV, 1964-66). The two actors most likely to be playing regular soldiers are Nicole Williamson as O’Rourke and Ian Holm as Flynn. These two are almost polar opposites – O’Rourke is a tall, wild Catholic Irishman from the south, Flynn is a short, reserved Protestant Ulsterman. The inevitable religious conflict bubbles below the surface (and in retrospect prompts us to reflect on what might have happened in the North of Ireland if National Service had continued and conscripts had patrolled the streets of Belfast and Derry in the 1970s). More relevant here is that O’Rourke is the main source of anger channeled through Evans, whereas Flynn tries, in vain, to talk sense into the young NCO and help him wherever possible.

Barry Jackson (Shone) and Richard O’Callaghan (Rowe) play the youngest characters who are presumably National Servicemen. It’s noticeable that they do most of the tasks and that they are most likely to be bullied by the other four. Donald Gee plays Crowley as the older, quieter regular who has seen everything before and knows how to keep his nose clean. John Thaw’s character is the mouthy Londoner (although Thaw, like Warner and Gee was from the Manchester region). Inevitably, perhaps, McGrath’s script draws on the repertoire of British narratives about barracks life in which soldiers are identified by region and social class. It’s important for the drama that the group mixes regulars and national servicemen. Each has a different perspective on military life and different experience of what life outside the army might mean.

Distribution and reception

The film was distributed by Universal through its long relationship with Rank which meant it opened at the Odeon St. Martin’s Lane in London, but I’m not sure if it made it to too many Odeons around the country. The opening in London was in August, a time when distributors released those titles they had little faith in. (In those days in the UK the only cinemas that did good business in August were in seaside resorts.) That August The Bofors Gun and The Graduate bucked the trend for the critics and both were acclaimed. This is evident from the display ad shown above which is taken from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of September 28th 1968. The Essoldo cinema was part of a North East cinema chain. Note that the critics (in reality newspaper reviewers) quoted are all from the ‘popular press’, not the broadsheets. The film is also offered in a double bill with The Birds (1963) with the Hitchcock film offering more familiar genre pleasures. This looks like a smart move. The critics loved the film, the public often didn’t (and IMDb has an American poster announcing this and challenging cinemagoers to see a film that “has something to say”). I did see the film in a cinema but I can’t remember which one.

This “landmark in British cinema”, as one critic pronounced it, was edited by the great Anne V. Coates, had music by Carl Davis and was photographed by Alan Hume. Those are three of the best in the business and it is shocking that with its cast and writer-director combination, The Bofors Gun is available only in a rare DVD edition that is very hard to find and now very expensive. The DVD print is in the 1.37:1 ratio, possibly reduced from 1.66:1? The video quality is quite poor. Even so, the film needs to be seen for both its content and theme, its ensemble acting and the McGrath-Gold collaboration in its creation and presentation. If you want to catch Nicol Williamson at his height, this the film to see.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    Much interesting background here. It is a shame that this appears to be a poor quality DVD. The title has been screened some years back on BBC [I think]; my memory is that then that it was a reasonable transfer.
    I did see the film at the cinema and was impressed. I think Jack Gold was a fine film-maker and his work usually included stimulating content. And Nicol Williamson was a really outstanding actor though his film appearances rarely gave him the opportunity for his skills. This is for me is one of his best performances on screen.
    I was interested in Roy’s avoidance of national service. I was caught between two ‘great satans’; a catholic seminary saved me from national service. I think there is an interesting British genre or cycle about people called up in the state military service.

    Like

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