Studio Canal add a brand new restoration of The Gentle Gunman to their Vintage Classics collection. Originally released in 1952, explores two sides of the Irish conflict. The struggle is examined through the conflicting opinions of two brothers and those who surround them.
Terry Sullivan (John Mills) had been a staunch member of the IRA. But we find him in London during World War Two, and his stance on the situation has changed. Meanwhile, his brother Matt (Dirk Bogarde) is still deep into the cause and striving to prove his loyalty.
The bulk of the character-led side of the plot deals with Terry trying to persuade his brother that they have been mistaken to take part in violent acts for their “cause”. They have only helped in hurting the innocent: civilians; children. Much of the action side follows Matt on his personal journey, defying his brother. He desperately wants to prove himself by succeeding in the missions assigned to him by more senior members of the IRA.
There are copious helpings of culpable tension, acted brilliantly not least by the two leads Mills and Bogarde. Though they are ably and effectively supported by a stellar cast including Robert Beatty, Elizabeth Sellars, Barbara Mullen, Eddie Byrne and Jack MacGowran.
John Mills’ earnest goodness, repentance and determination shine through here, giving the film its heart. At moments when the IRA indignation and call-to-arms could feel a little heavy-handed–at least by today’s standards–Mills balances things out. It isn’t just his character’s opposing views, but the truth in his performance, that is so compelling.
It is easy to see why Dirk Bogarde went on to such a well-respected career, when he was turning in performances like Matt in The Gentle Gunman. His youthful passion and the burn of injustice bring an intensity to scenes. But none more so than the penultimate sequence. Terry is trying to keep their comrades from completing a violent demonstration that would injure many innocent women and children in a residential street. Matt is almost helplessly watching events unfold. There is a group of children nearby, and when violence breaks out, he finally makes his choice.
It is fair to say that this film may not be considered the finest and most credible work of any of the actors here, in many ways. For example, neither lead are actually Irish, with their accents somewhat laboured and unconvincing at times. The pacing feels a little confused. The narrative switches from action to discussion and back again, which can feel confusing. But it also breaks things up and keeps the narrative from becoming monotonous.
But this film does follow a pattern; it stands alongside any suspenseful British film of the day in style and pace. Director Basil Dearden’s touch is evident, in the edgy and unnerving action as much as in the close-up, tense character-conflict scenes. While some of Dearden’s later works showcase his skill much more accurately, his ability to tackle gritty subjects on film is nevertheless demonstrated here.
The newly restored transfer looks amazing. All the burning, powerful looks and subtle but meaningful gestures pop out of the screen. This adds amply to the essence and effect of the film compared to the older transfer I had previously seen.
While not an example of any of the participants’ finest works, The Gentle Gunman is still a compelling film. The acting performances bring a passion and warmth which makes us care about the sympathetic characters, and somewhat pity and despise their rivals. Basil Dearden brings us the intensity that the subject demands. And while this film may not accurately represent the Irish conflict, nor add any context that we couldn’t find elsewhere, it is somewhat sympathetic to both sides. It allows points of view to breathe, and also to overlap, as in life.
It is perhaps a little too particular to be a first choice watch for the average fan of 1950s British movies – or even followers of Mills, Bogarde or any other member of the cast. But it is certainly worth a watch if you are seeking a light challenge and something that asks a few questions in an emotional and absorbing way.