‘Guns at Batasi’ or — Empire’s End?

I’d never even heard of John Guillermin’s ‘Guns at Batasi’ (1964) which was kinda fun as it meant I had no idea what to expect from this surprising movie which, considering it deals with the British stiff-upper lip remaining defiantly erect under pressure combined with questioning the validity of a motley group of British military in an independent African country, I can only describe as ‘Carry on Up The Khyber’ meets ‘The Wild Geese’.

Richard Attenborough plays Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale, a strict officer who runs his mess-hall with no nonsense whilst exerting his brand of discipline on any of the local troops the British are training in preparation for their country’s independence. However, before a peaceful hand-over can be achieved a coup occurs and it isn’t long before the rebel soldiers have the British camp surrounded and are the ones shouting the orders.

But to Lauderdale this is preposterous and until he receives orders from a legitimate superior then the chain of command will continue to be respected. The country is still officially under British rule and this is mutiny! To complicate matters the head of the country’s military was arrested during the coup and was to be shot as a traitor. Managing to escape, he has now sought refuge in the mess with both the British and the rebels knowing that if he is given up he will be killed. But he has been shot and injured and time is running out as he slowly dies without medical attention. This gives Lauderdale the moral justification he needs (or so he believes) to obstinately stand his ground. He’s saving a man’s life damn it, and not just grabbing his only chance at glory in combat or using it as a way to vent his resentment for never having had “his war”. Either way, rebels with guns, a dying man, British ignorance and the fight for self-determination are a volatile combination. Who will blink first?!

So ‘Guns at Batasi’ already has all the ingredients for a taut, tight, intelligent stand-off movie, which it most certainly is. What helps give it a lift though is Attenborough’s performance which is one of his best. He’s amazing here and completely nails the character of Lauderdale, taking this irate Little Englander from the heights of apoplectic rage to pathetic self-denial with complete skill. It’s almost as though this tiny man is the whole of the British Empire shocked and stunned at the loss of its power and throwing a tantrum with every further colony “lost”. Is this how Britain felt after WW II? Don’t worry; The Beatles are only a few years away so that’s some compensation. Indeed, the acting is first-class all round with some great ensemble work.

‘Guns at Batasi’ is also nicely made with Douglas Slocombe’s camerawork being particularly impressive and the Cinemascope frame always gorgeously filled. The sense of claustrophobia and building tension are handled well and whenever it needs to bust out of the confines of the mess-hall and to the larger world outside it does so effectively and with decent contrast. What’s also impressive is that the entire film was shot in England. Not a single foot of it was shot in Africa which is pretty impressive when you see the movie.

The only real negative is Mia Farrow. Yeah, she’s (bizarrely) in this in her first big-screen role. The only problem is that she does nothing during the entire film, and I mean nothing. I can’t think of another character who’s been so redundant in a movie. Even reducing her to just being there as the love-interest doesn’t work as she’s the least interesting love-interest I’ve ever seen. She’s more of a love-vacuum although even that might be overstating her presence in this movie. She only seems to be there to be shagged and that’s it making her simply a form of stress relief for John Leyton and nothing more. Really?!

Mia Farrow’s love-vacuum aside, ‘Guns at Batasi’ is cool little End-Of-Empire movie. It’s not quite a war film and not quite a purely political film, has almost no action in it yet is tense and exciting and deals with some interesting issues in an intelligent way, even if it deals with a couple of others in a block-headed way.

Not quite a classic but very much worth checking out especially if you’re into military/action films with an idiosyncratic flavour or want to see Richard Attenborough give one of the best entrances in a movie you’ve seen.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.