Just across the border from Northern Ireland, the land to the north is regarded as “occupied territory” by the men who meet covertly at Fagan’s Garage as they arm themselves and make plans. Great Britain at war with Europe, the year is 1941 and while Eire has officially remained neutral in the conflict there are those who are waging their own war under the banner of the Irish Republican Army with agents preparing an attack on the London Underground even as the Blitz rains down from above.
Adapted in 1952 from his play of the same name by Roger MacDougall, The Gentle Gunman was directed by The Blue Lamp’s Basil Dearden starring Quatermass’ John Mills and The Servant’s Dirk Bogarde as brothers Terence and Matt Sullivan, the elder unaccounted for while on assignment in London and the younger taking over his mission to place an explosive device in Camden Station, used as a bomb shelter and packed with families and their children.
A tragedy averted by the intervention of Terry, he tells his brother that his attitude and approach have changed, that he still believes in the goals but not the damage caused by the violence, but informing the police of their London base of operations the bomb makers Connolly and McGuire are arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison and as a result Terry is branded a traitor by IRA in absentia, to be tried when he is apprehended and likely executed.
A spectrum of opinion presented, it is Mills’ thoughtful Terry who drives the narrative, Bogarde’s more timid Matt following in his wake, questioning internally but never reaching a decision, while more extreme are Maureen Fagan (Elizabeth Sellars), her father killed by British soldiers and now pushing her teenage brother Johnny (James Kenney) to the cause even as their mother Molly (Barbara Mullen) calls out her callous indifference to life, while just across the border loyalist Doctor Brannigan (Joseph Tomelty) tends to any injuries without questioning the specifics of “another car accident” even as his English houseguest Henry Truethorne (Gilbert Harding) dismisses the Irish as little more than ill-educated savages.
Mills and Bogarde both underplaying the melodrama and succumbing to drifting accents, the premise of The Gentle Gunman is somewhat undermined by having the different sides of the argument over the future of Ireland spoken by two actors known for portraying facets of the British establishment, and the instantaneous emotional collapse of the cold and ruthless Maureen is as inexplicable as the offscreen death of another character last seen sitting up in his hospital bed and cursing his lineage.
These oddities aside, remastered by StudioCanal as part of their Vintage Classics range the lasting impression of The Gentle Gunman is less of the car chases than of the emptiness, the loss of those left behind, film writers Matthew Sweet and Phoung Lee observing in their accompanying informal chat about the film and its stars that despite the blood on the Belfast streets that the film came from a time of naïve optimism when it was felt the Irish situation would be resolved in short order rather than further decades of escalating violence.
The Gentle Gunman will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by StudioCanal on Monday 7th March