THE GENTLE GUNMAN (1952)
Two IRA men operating in England during WWII disagree on whether they should be bombing the British.
The Irish struggles of the 20th-century (first for independence from the UK, then for union of the south and north) made little impact on the screen until the 1980s and 1990s, despite occasional well-regarded works like like John Ford’s The Informer (1935) and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947).
This alone gives Basil Dearden’s The Gentle Gunman, a story about the IRA told from IRA members’ perspectives, considerable historical interest. And while it’s not a perfect film, and wasn’t well-received at the time, it’s often powerful in the way it approaches its subject and startling in how it directly compares the UK to Nazi Germany. Only seven years after the end of World War II, this is remarkably daring, and all the more so because the British “side” of the argument over Irish nationalism and Irish terrorism is only perfunctorily made in The Gentle Gunman. Instead, the task of casting doubt on the morality of the republicans’ bombing campaigns is left to a disillusioned IRA man.
The Gentle Gunman is based on a then-recent play by the Scottish writer Robert MacDougall, who also wrote the screenplay both for this film and a 1950 TV adaptation, but he’s better known for The Man in the White Suit (1951). It opens in Ireland in 1941, with the elderly Irish doctor Brannigan (Joseph Tomelty) and the pompous Englishman Truethome (the oddly-cast broadcasting personality Gilbert Harding) playing chess and arguing, more or less amicably, about the differences between terrorists and soldiers. This is MacDougall’s way of encapsulating the issues for an audience which might not have been aware of them—the conflicts which would erupt into ‘The Troubles’ during the 1960s were at this point not regarded by Britons as major issues.
The scene-setting taken care of, Dearden then cuts straight to a close-up of a bomb being placed in a briefcase. This, we learn, is being done by IRA men in London at the height of the Blitz, and many overt parallels are drawn: both between Germany and the UK (one of the Irishmen provocatively suggests to a landlady that Hitler is planning to establish a “United Kingdom of Great Germany and Northern England”), and between the Irish and German attacks on London (“the ruddy war again, always getting in the way” of the Irish agenda).
It’s also now that we meet the two central characters of the film: brothers Matt (Dirk Bogarde) and Terry (John Mills). The atmosphere is suspenseful as Matt makes his way through a London of fog and blackout to plant a bomb in a Tube station; tension is soon ratcheted up further as a group of kids, playing tag on the station platform where they are sheltering from the German bombs, come dangerously close to the Irishman’s briefcase (intended to explode, but not too close to people).
Soon after this incident, which will be echoed by another much later involving a grenade, Matt and Terry meet up in a smartly choreographed scene involving adjacent telephone booths. Here we discover that Terry—also an IRA member—has been out of touch, and that there are doubts about his loyalty.
Unfortunately, this is also where one of the film’s larger problems rears its head: the Irish accents of both Bogarde and Mills are patchy, to put it kindly, and while at least it’s clear in the case of Bogarde which side he’s on, the viewer could easily be forgiven for confusion where Mills is concerned. He was so associated with heroic British roles, from Captain Scott to the submarine captain of We Dive at Dawn (1943), that it’s quite easy to presume he’s English, and it’s also not terribly clear that Terry is Matt’s brother.
After this early section, undeniably exciting despite the Mills problem, The Gentle Gunman then returns to Ireland and Fagan’s garage, located in the Republic. Here it will spend a great deal of time, perhaps betraying its stage origins.
Young Johnny (James Kenney), son of the garage’s owner Molly (Barbara Mullen), is moving to Belfast to work on the docks. She’s adamant that he shouldn’t come home again, apparently hoping he can avoid becoming entangled with the IRA men who congregate at the garage–including Matt and Terry. But they soon need Johnny’s help in a plan to spring two fellow fighters who have been captured by the British, and the remainder of the film concerns this scheme.
The real interest of Dearden and MacDougall, though, lies not in the action but in the arguments—some implicit, some openly spoken—about the rights and wrongs of IRA strategy. (Interestingly, it never really questions the organisation’s overall goal of Irish unity.) Indeed, The Gentle Gunman can be seen as depicting a struggle for the soul of the young IRA man Matt, with the disenchanted Terry on one side and the much more committed Shinto (Robert Beatty) on the other.
The movie doesn’t demonise the diehards like Shinto, but its sympathies still clearly lie with the more moderate views of Terry (who’s anti-nationalism in general) and Johnny’s ma. While Shinto perceives Terry as a traitor, Molly derides it as “an easy word to use”, and observes that “a man can’t be true to himself without being a traitor to something.”
Terry himself argues that a traitor is “only a man who changed his mind”, and Matthew Sweet in the discussion of the film on this disc makes the convincing suggestion that this represents a common British view of the Irish issue at the time: essentially, that cooler heads would prevail and the problem would go away.
The characters are largely vehicles for these points rather than fully rounded individuals, but still many of the cast deliver effective performances, especially Mullen as the bitter, vehement but self-controlled Molly. Mills and Bogarde both have the screen presence you’d expect despite their inappropriate accents, and the former in particular conveys Terry’s cynicism well, while Jean St. Clair—an actual Irish actor, a rarity in this film!—is amusing in a small role as a gossipy switchboard operator.
Dearden and his cinematographer Gordon Dines, meanwhile, create simple but sometimes striking compositions (for example Molly with a large roadside cross, the hills of Wicklow in the distance behind them).
The Gentle Gunman isn’t immune from the common failings of mid-century melodramas. John Greenwood’s score is rather over-dramatic, and a love triangle involving Johnny’s sister (Elizabeth Sellars) is both dull and barely relevant to anything else. It fails also, as contemporary critics noted, in not ever allowing Mills’s Terry to explain exactly how he proposes to serve the Irish cause without violence, leaving it as a vague statement; and it doesn’t entirely extinguish the comedy-Irish aspects of the stage original. Even the few that remain come across very strangely to an audience accustomed to considering the IRA as a deadly serious matter.
But, for the most part, it’s rather accomplished (as one would expect from the versatile Dearden). Not startlingly original but always confident and often stylish, and the unusual settings, characters and ideas add much interest.
UK | 1952 | 86 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
director: Basil Dearden.
writer: Roger MacDougall (based on his play).
starring: John Mills, Dirk Bogarde & Elizabeth Sellars.