THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN

A Very English Caper

When The League of Gentlemen was premiered in 1960, the “heist” or “caper” film was a relatively new sub-genre of the crime film. Although Edwin S.Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) was a prototype, the formula was established in the 1950s by John Huston in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Jules Dassin in Rififi (1955) and Stanley Kubrick in The Killing (1956). Comedy caper films also appeared in the 50s with Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955), both from Ealing Studios. The caper film normally deals with the intricate planning and undertaking of an elaborate major robbery often against a seemingly impregnable security system. The participants in the caper are usually experts in a particular skill necessary for the execution of the crime who must put aside any personal differences and form a team. Convention requires that although the robbery may be successful, the gang members are eventually caught or killed, either because of internal tensions within the group and/or ironic twists of fate. The training of a squad of experts to undertake a dangerous mission has much in common with war films such as Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and it is the use of military tactics, discipline and precision for personal gain in peacetime that is the basic premise of The League of Gentlemen.

The League of Gentlemen was the first film made by Allied Film Makers, which was established in 1959 by Basil Dearden, Michael Relph, Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Guy Green and Jack Hawkins. AFM was a producers’ co-operative with the Rank Organization acting as distributor and providing 10% of the production finance but having no artistic control over the projects thereby allowing AFM to produce more a novel and less formulaic film. Rank had discovered that independent productions were more popular than their own films and The League of Gentlemen proved to be the sixth biggest UK box office draw of 1960. The career of the film’s director Basil Dearden was steeped in the Ealing Studios ethos of social realism and communal wartime effort and he had become closely associated with “social problem” films such as Sapphire (1959). The script was written by actor-writer Bryan Forbes based on John Boland’s 1958 novel of the same name. Forbes’ other screen writing credits included I was Monty’s Double (1958), Danger Within (1959) and The Angry Silence (1960).

The League of Gentlemen opens with an extraordinary medium shot of Jack Hawkins emerging at night time in a city street from a sewer manhole immaculately dressed in a dinner suit to stirring war film background music. His unsoiled appearance and purposeful manner acting as a metaphor for the personality of Lt. Col. John George Norman Hyde whose full name and rank is not revealed until later in the film. The film is structured in seven main parts: an introduction which establishes the current situation of the seven members of the heist team; their recruitment by Hyde; a period of training; an initial caper to supply necessary military equipment for the main caper; a reunion in which the spoils are divided and a coda in which the team are brought to justice.

Hyde sends to each potential member of the team a copy of an American crime paperback The Golden Fleece, one half each of 10 £5 notes and an invitation from Co-operative Removals Limited to lunch at the Café Royal, Regent Street  where “If all goes well you will have no further financial worries.” The first recipient is Peter Race (Nigel Patrick) has just been cleaned out in a gambling binge being forced to give up his luxury flat and mistress and live in the YMCA. Rupert Rutland-Smith (Terence Alexander) indulges his openly unfaithful wife as she talks to her lover on the phone while taking a bath. “The war’s been over a long time,” she teases. “Nothing’s rationed anymore, there’s plenty to go round.” “Padre” Mycroft (Roger Livesey), an obviously bogus priest, is introduced making a quick getaway from a seedy lodging house when his landlady tells him the police have called. He packs his clothes into a suitcase half full of girlie magazines. Martin Porthill (Bryan Forbes) is an out of work club pianist separated from his wife and the kept-man of a middle-aged neurotic woman to whom he lies about his younger girl friends. Edward Lexy (Richard Attenborough) runs a mews garage and rigs slot machines for crooked casino owners. Stevens (Kieron Moore) is a masseur in small gymnasium who is being blackmailed for his homosexuality. “They say girls are expensive enough, but it takes all sorts to make a world,” taunts the blackmailer (Dearden would expand this subject in the following year with Victim). Frank Weaver (Norman Bird) lives a miserable existence with a nagging wife who dotes on his senile father-in-law who is glued to TV soap operas. All the actors were stalwarts of 50s British war films (“I had a bloody good war” Rutland-Smith tells his wife) and their roles in the film seem an apt comment on the passing of the genre and purposeless lives in peacetime. 

At the lunch (at which Race arrives late having found himself in “a room full of trade unionists cooking up the next wage claim, all Tories of course”) Hyde distributes the other halves of the notes and asks for opinions of the bank robbery in The Golden Fleece. Getting a lukewarm response he tells them that they are “all crooks, one way or another.” and relates why they left or were cashiered from the army, their former ranks and specialist skills which he obtained from their files before he left the army. Capt. Mycroft, a quartermaster for gross indecency in the Tunbridge Wells Botanical Gardens. Lt. Lexy, a radio expert, for spying for the Russians for “money as always, not principles.” Capt. Porthill for shooting Eoka suspects in Cyprus. Maj. Race, a transport  officer, for black market activities in Hamburg. Capt. Stevens, an ex-Mosely Blackshirt for being involved a homosexual scandal. Capt. Weaver, an explosives expert, who was responsible for the death of four men in a bomb disposal squad while drunk on duty. Major Rutland-Smith’s wife bought him out of the Army after settling his embarrassing mess bills. As for Hyde,  he has no criminal record but has a strong sense of grievance for having served his country for 25 years before being declared redundant. He has “a social conscience over so much public money wasted over military training” and intends to rob a bank using the collective skills of the team with equal shares of £100 000 each. Unlike the earlier introduction to the team members, they are now presented in a less sympathetic light as perhaps persons who were attracted to army careers because of personal inadequacies that were gratified or repressed by militarism. In a post-war situation with no common purpose and less disciple , some fell victim to their weaknesses and all are in desperate need of money except Hyde, who seeks recompense from an ungrateful establishment.

Race follows Hyde’s car to his country house where he lives alone. They immediately form a domestic relationship with Race taking the role of a wife and donning an apron to wash the accumulation of dishes in the sink while Hyde nags Race about calling him “old darling.” Race “proposes” that he becomes second-in-command and chides Hyde for insisting on “socialistic nonsense” about  equal shares. When Hyde defends his policy Race remarks “We really are a marvelous nation; in any crisis we always produce the right man for the job, even though it is the wrong job.” Race asks if a portrait of a middle-aged woman is Hyde’s wife and is she still alive to which Jack Hawkins, the embodiment of rugged British chivalry replies, “I regret to say the bitch is still going strong.” Hill (1) comments that the combination of dialogue, acting and staging of this scene make it hard to resist the implication of a homosexual seduction. As Geraghty (2 ) as pointed out,  "Demobilisation posed difficulties not just because of the problems of readjusting to family life but also because it meant leaving particular forms of companionship and hierarchy" and cites other critics as interpreting this period in British cinema as being marked by a "crisis in masculinity made up of a feeling of loss of war-time agency and an anxiety about the status of post-war women." The League of Gentlemen offers a view of masculinity in which the ambiguous relationship between Hyde and Race, Stevens' homosexuality and Mycroft's perverted behavior are acceptable within the confines of a small male group sharing a common purpose. This distinction is humorously illustrated by the unwanted intrusion of an outrageously camp chorus boy (Oliver Reed) into a team planning meeting which he thinks is a rehearsal for "Babes in the Wood."

The team takes up residence at Hyde’s house where he imposes a strict monastic regime,  duties and fines for misdemeanors. Phase 1 of the operation involves a raid on an Army Command Training Centre in Dorset where Hyde, Race and Mycroft create a diversion disguised as high-ranking officers investigating a complaint about the food while the rest of the team steal the arms and equipment necessary for Phase 2. Mycroft in his role as the senior officer relishes in humiliating Hyde and Race recalling Livesey’s 1943 role as Colonel Blimp. The team lapse into Irish accents so that the IRA gets both the credit and the blame for the raid. Hyde explains: “We British will always give the Germans, Russians, the Japanese even the Egyptians the benefit of the doubt; but never the Irish.” A jokey remark which, nevertheless, defines the team's national identity in contrast to "others."

Hyde reveals that Phase 2 is an elaborate raid on a City of London Bank to steal used bank notes and finishes his briefing with a morale-boosting Churchillian speech about “our finest hour” and “what price glory?” Lexy comments: “He’s a nut-case, you know. There’s no getting away from it; he’ll end up with a knighthood.” The robbery is carried out with the precision of a commando operation in which the team immobilize telephone and electrical systems with explosives, jam police transmissions and undertake an armed robbery under the cover of a smoke-canister screen wearing nightmarish gas-masks.

After the robbery, the evenly divided money is placed in suitcases as the team holds a final regimental reunion singing “Soldiers of the Queen.” The celebrations are interrupted by the arrival of Brig. “Bunny “ Warren (Robert Coote) and old army friend and new neighbour of Hyde, a harmless duffer who is plied with drink as the team depart for “well earned leave to sunnier climes.” With only Race and Bunny left, Hyde discovers that police and armed soldiers surround the house. Race refuses to leave without Hyde but Hyde orders him to go while he remains to provide delaying action. “Give them their moneys worth at the trial and then flog your memoirs to the Sunday papers,” comments Race as he departs. Hyde makes telephone contact with the police and demands “There’s just one thing I’d like to know, who betrayed us?” He is relieved to discover there was no traitor but the caper was foiled by a young boy taking car numbers during the raid which eventually resulted in his own car being traced (at this point in John Boland's novel, Hyde commits suicide but, following the film's success, subsequent editions substituted the same ending and Boland wrote two sequels). Hyde and Bunny are escorted to a Black Maria where they find the rest of the team “all present and correct.”

The League of Gentlemen has been imprecisely defined as a “comedy thriller” but has no real claim to that description than the more recent caper film Reservoir Dogs. Both have humorous scripts revolving around the members of the gang and League is lacking in any “thrills” as its two capers are perfectly executed without any violence. The best description would be a “war film set in peacetime”, particularly as Hyde is interchangeable with Hawkins’ commando leader, Major Warden in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the male bonding and boot camp elements of the  war film are successfully transposed. The film reflects British war films in the 50’s which depicted what Ryall (3) defines as a more an self-enclosed officers’ war dealing with the intricacies of escapes, raids and operations and less with pulling aside class differences and engaging in a collective effort as in 40s war films. Hyde is pure Sandhurst as are Race and Rutland-Smith; the others appear to have war-time commissions and although Richard Attenborough’s Lexy is almost a reincarnation of Private Cox from Private’s Progress (1956) with a field commission , the team is entirely middle-class. Officers with war-time commissions who returned to their mundane peacetime jobs insisting on still being referred to by their rank to command some degree of respect and retain their self-esteem, tended to be figures of fun and are represented in the film by Norman Bird’s Frank Weaver with his miserable home life. The female characters in the film, who only appear momentarily at the beginning, are portrayed as having temporary, unsatisfactory or predatory relationships with the team, including the unseen Mrs Hyde. Its only the male-bonding necessary for the venture that provides any degree of satisfaction for the characters. As Basil Dearden was an exponent of the Ealing ethos of communal activity in the public good in such films as The Blue Lamp (1950), The League of Gentlemen could be interpreted as representing the British establishment dealing with post-war malaise by applying ruthless wartime energy to acquisitive commercial ventures in a consumer society. Hyde’s team, as opposed to Riley’s gang in The Blue Lamp, are “awfully decent types” who pull together as a team to regain their privileged status in society rather than vicious criminals. As Alexander Walker (4) observed ; “The League of Gentlemen , with its target of quick capital gains, was an ideal comedy for a boom-time economy.” Kaminsky (5) has suggested that caper films, which set a small unlikely group against institutionalized authority, are rebellious tales about a combination of individualism and Hawksian professionalism challenging state power. The film bears out this definition with the twist that the “small unlikely group” are former instruments of state power carrying out a profitable coup d’etat.

 Filmography

The League of Gentlemen (1960) Dir. Basil Dearden.

References

(1) Hill, J. Sex, Class and Realism, British Film Institute, 1986, p 94.

(2) GERAGHTY, C. British Cinema in the Fifties, Routledge, 2000, pp 175-195.

(3) RYALL,T. Fifties British War Films, Close Up: The Electronic Journal of British Cinema, Issue 1, Winter 1996/7.  

(4) WALKER, A.  Hollywood England, Michael Joseph, 1974, pp.103-4.

(5) KAMINSKY, S. American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film,  Pflaum, Dayton, OH, 1974.


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