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Guns at Batasi
Set in present-day Africa, in a fictional East African nation, the film takes place on a British military base used to train indigenous conscripts during the country's transitional period from British colony to independent nation. Shortly after Commanding Officer Col. Deal (Jack Hawkins) is ordered to turn the camp over to African Captain Abraham (Earl Cameron), the British find themselves in the midst of a military coup (on Queen Elizabeth II's birthday, no less). There's a mutiny on the base led by British-educated African Lt. Boniface (Errol John), who has Abraham arrested.
At the Sergeants' Mess, RSM Lauderdale (Attenborough) and veteran career Sergeants "Dodger" (Graham Stark), Parkin (Percy Herbert), "Muscles" (David Lodge), and others initially have no idea what has happened. Pretty soon though Abraham, severely wounded, has escaped his captors and flees to the Sergeants' Mess. Visiting MP Miss Baker Wise (Flora Robson), turns up as well, along with Private Wilkes (John Leyton) and U.N. secretary Karen Eriksson (Mia Farrow, in her film debut), both retreating to the base after the country's airport is shut down during the takeover.
After a very long and not terribly interesting set-up, the picture becomes a battle of wills, with Lt. Boniface demanding that Lauderdale hand over the wounded Abraham, and Lauderdale steadfastly refusing to do so.
Guns at Batasi (rhymes with "Battersea"; it's an adaptation, co-written by Leo Marks, of Robert Holles' novel The Siege of Battersea) tries hard but is pretty much stillborn. Despite the familiar presence of fine character actors like Herbert, Lodge, and Stark, all of the supporting players are stock British military stereotypes, with only Hawkins' pragmatic C.O. generating any interest.
The addition of a handsome young private and pretty U.N. secretary into a story dominated by aging soldiers and angry African rebels, and their instant romance over the course of the military coup must surely rank as one of the most annoyingly superfluous subplots of all-time. Though at the beginning it looks as if Wilkes' purpose is to ironically comment on and contrast his more traditionalist superiors, in the end he doesn't really have much function in the story, and the character of Karen should have been dispensed with entirely.
Richard Attenborough reportedly spent many weeks studying a real-life RSM to get his character down, but the end result generally comes off as a broad stereotype, Colonel Blimp come to life, complete with extravagantly overdone makeup: bushy eyebrows and mustache. An actor capable of great subtlety (see Seance on a Wet Afternoon or 10 Rillington Place), Attenborough clearly thought an unsubtle approach was best, and by the end of the film he almost convinces us that his choice was justified, but not quite.
Another problem with Guns at Batasi, besides that singularly uninspired title, is that it lacks the authenticity of Zulu and other contemporary films actually shot in Africa. After five decades of turmoil and genocide, the film seems awfully tame today, but even back in 1964 the film must have seemed unreal compared to current events. (The shocking documentary Africa Addio, filmed at the same time, couldn't be a greater contrast.)
Most of Guns at Batasi, including exteriors, was shot on soundstages at Pinewood. Painfully obvious painted backdrops are visible throughout the film (and if they're this obvious on DVD, what must they have looked like on a big theater screen?), with a few shots unconvincingly using process photography to blend the actors into real exteriors, which don't much look like Africa, either. (Leyton says all the exteriors were shot on the Pinewood backlot or on the Salisbury Plain.) Overall the film looks like an ITC show from the same era, done for British television.
Video & Audio
Guns at Batasi is presented in a 16:9 widescreen transfer preserving its original CinemaScope compositions and crisp monochrome cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. An English stereo track is offered, but this is not derived from the four-track magnetic mixes heard on earlier CinemaScope releases, but rather remixed from a mono source, also included. A Spanish mono track is offered as well, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Actor John Leyton provides an informative and interesting Audio Commentary, though the sometimes long passages between comments make it difficult to sit through. Also included is a notably misleading Trailer, which sells the film as a rip-roaring adventure with the exploitation hyperbole of a Hammer film like Stranglers of Bombay. It's 16:9 as well, and complete with narration and text.
Guns at Batasi deserves credit for trying to be About Something, but the end result just doesn't amount to much.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.