The story goes that Michael Powell was run out of the business after the controversy of Peeping Tom … but the film he made immediately after that hot potato was this eminently respectable picture, with a relatively high budget and tons of cooperation from the sort of Establishment bodies (including the army and, implicitly, the Royals) who wouldn’t have liked Peeping Tom. He later dismissed it as his worst work, perhaps because it was a flop – I suspect the commercial reverse had more to do with rendering him unemployable in the UK than the scandal of Tom: Arthur Crabtree and Sidney Hayers found work after Horrors of the Black Museum and Circus of Horrors, the other Anglo-Amalgamated mutilation movies. I had dim memories of seeing TQG (or parts of it) on TV in the ‘70s, and thought it not much cop – but looking at it again on the big screen in a great-looking archive print and it strikes me as worth reassessment.
It’s framed by the Trooping of the Colour in 1960 (it was wet, part of the day) as Captain John Fellowes (Daniel Massey) leads the ceremony and flashes back to his training at Sandhurst, complicated domestic life and a recent military engagement in a made-up North African country. John has always lived in the shadow of his Guards officer brother, who was killed at ‘Horseshoe Oasis’ in the War, and is treated with contempt by his crippled father (Raymond Massey), who hauls himself around their two-storey maisonette by hooks on the ceiling and obsesses over the regiment, its history and its traditions, while his mother (Ursula Jeans) is quietly potty and insists her eldest is only missing in action (in a complex bit, it turns out that he was shot by the Germans for summarily executing a prisoner – a pragmatic action his father despises but which John sees as just a mistake). In training, John bonds with Henry Wynne-Walton (Robert Stephens), an even posher young officer, and they also swap girlfriends – described as a major crisis set beside the trifle of Suez but played in a flip manner – so that Henry gets the superficial, well-bred model Susan (Elizabeth Sheppard – Corman’s Ligeia) while John gets the practical Ruth (Judith Stott – the tempting coed from Night of the Eagle), whose garage-owning Dad (Ian Hunter), a former Royal Engineer, dislikes officers in general and Guards officers in particular.
It acknowledges class, in explicit bits like the father’s rant but also odd things like Susan and her family getting much better seats at the ceremony than Ruth’s lower middle-class crowd, but is more interested in weird, skewed family drama: both Masseys are very good, with Raymond in particular strong as the nuanced tyrant (John Ford would have sentimentalised or made heroic the crippled patriarch, but Powell sees the monster in him). It also runs to a few genuinely strange touches, like casting Jess Conrad as a pub guitarist (who rocks out at the Prospect of Whitby on the river, surrounded by amazing-looking cool cats) who goes into the Guards, perhaps to add youth appeal to the film the way Ricky Nelson is in Rio Bravo … or the odd joke of getting two distinguished British character actors (Laurence Payne and Nigel Green) to play the antagonists in the desert war the Guards have to intervene in but not giving either of them close-ups or dialogue. The small war, shot during real Guards manouvres in Libya, allows the characters to be properly heroic, but is also a typical post-colonial balls-up in which the leader the Brits are supposed to rescue gets killed and John has to go through reflections of his family history dealing with another summary execution in the desert and having the haul himself about like his father after suffering a ridiculous but believable wound (a badly sprained back – which means he has to troop the colour with a corset of bandages under his red tunic) in the first engagement.
It does have stultifying military music (by Brian Easdale) and a sense of wanting not to offend the Queen (who gets a bigger role here than in Hennessy, which uses stock footage: Powell pre-empts Medium Cool and The Ploughman’s Lunch by shooting his own footage of the actual ceremony to splice into the fiction) but can stand as a not-unworthy successor to the meditation on the British military in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Ill Met By Moonlight and others. With Jack Watson as the tough but kind sergeant (ie: without the malice Harry Andrews would have added), Anthony Bushell (seemingly in the major’s uniform he wore in Quatermass and the Pit on TV), Duncan Lamont, Jack Watling, Tony Selby (back when he was Anthony Selby) and (as themselves) pundit Rene Cutforth and newsreader Richard Baker. Written by Simon Harcourt-Smith and Roger Milner.
James A. Wu I appreciate this detailed review, but I wish I could see this somehow. I’ve only ever read about it here in the States.
Brad Stevens The film has grown in my mind during the few days since I saw it, to the extent that I now suspect it may be one of Powell’s most fascinating works – though its interest is at least in part due to the unresolved nature of its ambiguities: Powell seems genuinely uncertain what to make of his ‘hero’, whom the mise en scene portrays as both a toy soldier and a fly trapped in a spider’s web. The protagonist’s attempts to both emulate and rebel against his insanely authoritarian father (the image of him moving around his house like a spider is remarkably suggestive) provides a direct link with PEEPING TOM. Everyone I spoke to after the screening had a more or less favourable reaction to the film, and couldn’t understand why its reputation was so poor. Hopefully, somebody (Masters of Cinema? The BFI?) can be persuaded to release this on DVD.
Kim Newman Brad – I had a similar experience. The people I talked with afterwards had all enjoyed the movie, and were befuddled as to how it the waters had closed over it. I suspect there is still a residual auteurism where we tend to look closer at lesser films from major filmmakers – I don’t think I’d have troubled myself to catch an equivalent movie from, say, Basil Dearden or J. Lee Thompson (both of whom I like) but Powell’s involvement makes this much more interesting. I was very struck by the line in Powell’s autobiography to the effect that few realise that the Guards who perform in these great camp patriotic pageants are also combat troops.
David McGillivray He wasn’t run out of the business. He just never had another big hit. I saw this when it first came out on a double bill. It died a death.
Brad Stevens I suspect it’s one of those films which simply looked odd upon its initial release, but plays surprisingly well to a modern audience. Imagine if we’d been unable to see VERTIGO since 1958, and had to rely on the memories of viewers who found it slow and incompetently constructed.
Graham Walker · 8 mutual friends
Fascinating to compare how a film was received in 30 odd years ago with how it is seen now. A favourite subject of mine.
Michael BrookeI incorporated a very detailed reception study in my booklet essay for Second Run’s ‘A Blonde in Love’, re-read it just before submission, thought “Christ, is anyone actually going to read this bit?”, decided not to cut it myself in the end but strongly recommended that that was the section to remove if they thought it was too long.
But they printed it in full, and all the reviews that mentioned the booklet at all singled out that section as the best bit. So now I do it routinely, if I’ve got the space and I can find out enough info (not always easy).
Handily, my current DVD booklet commission is Hugh Hudson’s ‘Revolution’, where it would be perverse in the extreme to ignore its reception.
Scott Connors · Sounds oretty good. I liked “Tunes of Glory” quite a bit, and this seems to be cut from the same cloth.
Kim – I’d agree with you that this film made Powell as unemployable as Peeping Tom did (Powell’s autobiography contains several ‘porkies’ about Tom such as a statement that the negative was sold ‘to an obscure black marketeer’ and that the distribution was cancelled when it wasn’t). The Daily Cinema has a picture of Powell in October 1961 at the Gala Premier of Queen’s Guards which suggests that he was still being feted over a year after Peeping Tom’s release. But this one made no money at all and is almost a ‘lost’ film. However, he like other unemployed film directors, also directed several TV episodes in the next few years although he never got to the giddy heights of The Saint or The Avengers or go cap in hand to the likes of Hammer or Compton.