After the end of the Second World War, Ealing Studios enjoyed a period of dwarfing all competition in imagination. With its creatives imbued with documentarian precision from the war, the studio produced a remarkable string of classics – among them comedies, dramas, war films and historicals. One of Ealing’s lesser-spotted productions from this time is The Gentle Gunman (1952), a taut IRA drama directed by one of the studio’s stalwarts, Basil Dearden (The Captive Heart, Saraband for Dead Lovers, The Goose Steps Out). Following an intricate restoration process, the film, accompanied by new extra material, is the newest addition to StudioCanal’s essential “Vintage Classics” collection.
The film, adapted from a stage play by Scottish playwright Roger MacDougall, depicts a moral struggle within a group of IRA foot-soldiers during the height of the Second World War. John Mills (Great Expectations, The Family Way) plays Terence Sullivan, the ruminant ‘gentle gunman’ of the title who has turned his back on the IRA (“There are better ways of serving your country than dying”). Mills was at a slump in his career in 1952, having been a successful leading man in the 1940s. He finds a contradictory lead in Terry, a sulky type handsy with guns despite his advocacy for non-violent solutions. Cast inexplicably as his younger brother is a boyish Dick Bogarde (The Servant, A Bridge Too Far) as Matt Sullivan, who continues to carry out dangerous activities for the republican cause but is increasingly torn in his loyalties. Crucially, neither Mills nor Bogarde can manage a Northern Irish accent. Neither really can Canadian Robert Beatty (2001: A Space Odyssey, Where Eagles Dare), who nevertheless turns in a mean and moody performance as diehard Shinto. Beatty had already successfully played an Irishman for Ealing in Another Shore (1948) and his rubbery good looks and shifting eyes make him an engrossing presence here.
Among those encircling the moral struggle are the brilliant (and Northern Irish!) Joseph Tomelty (Hobson’s Choice, Devil Girl from Mars) as Dr Brannigan, Elizabeth Sellars (The Barefoot Contessa, Forbidden Cargo) as Maureen Fagan and Barbara Mullen (A Place of One’s Own, Dr. Finlay’s Casebook) as Molly Fagan. Joining Tomelty’s Dr Brannigan is his chess mate, Henry Truethome (Gilbert Harding), an irascible Englishman who’s only role is to denigrate the Irish character. Even when threatened by the IRA, he’s calling Ireland a “hotbed of ill-bred ruffians”. You wonder why he moved to the country. Better comic relief comes from some of the minor Northern Irish characters, including cock-a-hoop telephone operator Rosie and two hungry paramedics who wish people would “get sick at a respectable time”.
The Gentle Gunman arrived during a fruitful period for Ealing Studios. Director Basil Dearden, cinematographer Gordon Dines and art director Jim Morahan were fresh from The Blue Lamp (1950) and Pool of London (1951) – inner-city crime dramas innovative in their social realism. The Gentle Gunman veers off in an altogether different direction. The three paint a Northern Ireland that feels like a doomed Wild West, from the windswept outpost of Fagans Garage to the haunted strips of Belfast. There are only brief bursts of the kind of urban intrigue Ealing had excelled in before; The Gentle Gunman fires its shots in hay-strewn barns, on dirt roads and through battered wagons.
Or doesn’t fire its shots, rather. We’re rarely a minute away from another gun being held at waist height, but most of the violence here is only implied. Par for the course with an Irish story told by British filmmakers, the characters in The Gentle Gunman have the gift of the gab and refer to bloodshed in wonderfully lurid terms. When Matt is taking part in a risky operation, Terry worries he’ll be left “in a quiet lane somewhere with a bullet in his guts and the life pouring out of him like the oil out of a broken lamp”. Terry is less effective when he advocates for peace. The character is clearly intended as the film’s moral centre, but he doesn’t offer any real ideas. When speaking of his opposition to the IRA’s practices, Terry never graduates past platitudes (“An Irishman is the same thing as an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Russian, a German, an Italian or an American. It’s the way we’re all separated out into different countries that causes the trouble”). Ealing can be commended for not simply treating the IRA as stock bad guys, but the film depends on viewers buying Terry’s clichés. They’re more likely to buy that accent.
The Gentle Gunman’s greatest strengths are in its whimsical set design and stark cinematography, both illuminated by the stunning restoration here. The script is too slight, but sometimes the film succeeds on the world built around the dodgy accents. This is Ealing out of its comfort zone and, for that reason, it’s an engrossing watch. Some of the film’s high-spots and drawbacks are identified in “A Closer Look at The Gentle Gunman with writers Matthew Sweet and Phoung Lee”, a welcome featurette offering modern perspectives on this production. As a film about Ireland, The Gentle Gunman is… …British. As an unusual curio from a golden age in British film, it’s well worth a look.
The Gentle Gunman is available to own from StudioCanal on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on March 7.