“The only way you’ll ever fulfill yourself is to die in action!”
A very suitable quote aimed at Sergeant-Major Richard Attenborough in this military tale that has it’s moments. And why wouldn’t it with Sir Richard and Jack Hawkins headlining the cast.
Our story takes place in Africa after the wars have ended and British rule is being challenged by the native people. Naturally there is that racial question as the native race is black and our military outpost is far outnumbered. Hawkins is the head man while Richard is his second on the base that comprises of a few well known British faces including David Lodge, Percy Herbert and John Leyton. The majority of the soldiers on base are indeed native Africans.
Uprisings are becoming a constant problem in the area leading Hawkins to receive orders to turn the base over to the top ranking native officer Earl Cameron. Hawkins leaves the base while Richard plays host to the Brits in the officers mess. This includes Leyton who turns up with stranded Mia Farrow in tow. Also visiting the camp is Flora Robson who will have some harsh words with Attenborugh’s “by the book” style of rule before the fade out.
The temperatures rise when a coup is enacted by Errol John taking command of the compound by force leaving Cameron shot up and seeking refuge in the Brits care. It’s a bit of a pressure cooker from here on in as Attenborough won’t give an inch to new commander by gunfire John. This despite the fact that their small building is totally surrounded by what was once his own native charges. It becomes a battle of wills between the various characters and their personal situations.
This John Guillermin effort was scripted by Robert Holles who adapted it from his own novel The Siege at Battersea. While I was a little worried initially at Attenborough’s straight laced Major I soon found it was a character of depth and not just a paint by numbers portrait we have all seen far too often. I really shouldn’t have been surprised as Sir Richard has rarely let me down over the years both in front of or behind the camera. His scenes opposite Errol John are filled with electricity when Richard refuses to bow down to a newly self appointed commander. John on the other hand is hesitant on just how far he can push the rigid Richard and his military etiquette.
Jack Hawkins doesn’t have too much to do here other then lend the authority that he so easily brings to the screen when playing an officer. Somehow if you know his story you just know that the voice is slipping and the inevitable loss of his great instrument was not too far off.
At times this film shows it’s budget restraints and the plot feels like it’s been forced to include a romantic angle with Farrow and Leyton. Still director Gullermin makes it work with our two leading British stars. Guillermin had a long career and worked on many high profile flicks over the years including The Towering Inferno and the 1976 remake of King Kong.
Hawkins and Attenborough worked together a number of times over the years and if one hasn’t seen them in The League of Gentlemen it’s worth a look as is this military tale from 1964.