The Gentle Gunman is a monochrome IRA thriller set in the early 40’s during World War II, directed by Ealing Studios stalwart Basil Dearden, written by  Roger MacDougall, which was adapted from his stage play of the same name.

Dirk Bogarde plays Matt, a youthful IRA soldier dedicated to the cause. In the film’s opening scenes, in Blitz era London, Matt fails to successfully detonate a bomb in the underground when he panics and flees on being confronted by a group of children who have taken shelter in the station during an air raid. Following the arrest of a number of his comrades, Matt along with his pacifist older brother Terry (John Mills), flee to their homeland to escape custody. Terry’s loyalty and commitment to the cause are subsequently called into question by IRA stickler, Shinto, played with granite faced zeal Robert Beatty. An internecine feud develops between Shinto and Terry, with Terry arguing in favour of non-violent means to free their imprisoned comrades, and Shinto pushing for an escalation in bloody hostilities to achieve the same aim.

As a crime thriller the film works well, though its cod-noir stylings, which complement the London scenes, seem somewhat at odds aesthetically with the hilly backdrop of rural Ireland. Cinematographer Gordon Dines does an amazing job of juxtaposing the bomb blasted claustrophobia of London with the sweeping panoramas of the Irish countryside though John Greenwood’s score, which errs on the side of melodrama, would have better suited a Gothic Romance or a John Ford Western, as opposed to a thriller featuring the IRA.

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The film’s core message of ‘There are better ways of getting what you want than at the point of a gun,’ is a laudable one and the film makes a reasonable attempt to present itself as a balanced meditation on the troubles, which is commendable given that it was released in 1952.

Where it falls down, however, is in its attempts to circumvent the politics underpinning the conflict in favour of character drama. This has an unintentionally negative effect on the narrative, which is weightless, wordy and a bit lumpy as a result, verging on soap opera occasionally, as the varying conflicted characters argue their cases for and against the violence.

It doesn’t help that English characters in the film are represented as paternalistic stiff upper-lipped toffs whilst the Irish, with the exception perhaps of Terry, are depicted as knockabout, salt of the earth simpleton’s prone to black and white thinking whose attempts to confront the English invariably result in failure.

Matinee idol Dirk Bogarde as suggestible idealist Matt, and Robert Beatty as dogmatic antagonist Shinto make the most of their respective roles even if their Irish accents leave a lot to be desired.  John Mills is pretty steady in the roll of reformed soldier Terry, despite the fact Terry’s constant proselytising in favour of a peaceful resolution to the conflict comes across as insincere and a touch patronising on occasion.

 

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Elizabeth Sellars stars as the film’s token femme-fatale with a taste for violent hard-men. However, it’s Barbara Mullen, as a distraught, hand wringing matriarch whose husband was killed whilst fighting for the IRA, who leaves a lasting impression. That said, for the most part, The Gentle Gunman is a virile movie, with little time for the maternal considerations it occasionally pays lip service to.

Having been intricately restored for this latest addition to Studio Canal’s Vintage Classics collection, The Gentle Gunman is visually pristine, ensuring a resplendent viewing experience that really makes the most of Gordon Dines’ excellent photography.

The disc features a limited clutch of extras including a closer look at The Gentle Gunman with film writers Matthew Sweet and Phuong Le, a behind the scenes stills gallery and not much else. Overall, though, this release is an extremely welcome one for curious film fans and Ealing completists, looking to venture beyond the studio’s back catalogue of superior comedy releases at some of the lesser remembered crime flicks the studio produced during its heyday.

The Gentle Gunman (Studio Canal Vintage Classics Blu-Ray) is released on Blu-ray in the UK from 7th March 2022

By Mark Anthony Ayling

Mark Anthony Ayling is a Registered Mental Health Nurse and writer whose stories have appeared in Perihelion, Cracked Eye, and The Twisted Tails IX anthology. He has written book reviews for Bookbrowse and BlueInk Reviews and contributed film essays and articles at VHS Revival and Horrified Magazine. A collection of his dystopian fiction, titled Northern Futures, was published by Lillicat in 2016. Ayling is also the author of the periodic film blog/journal/diary The Random Movie Journal.