This strange film turned up on Talking Pictures TV a couple of days ago. It is ‘strange’ not because of its theme or genre categorisation, which are relatively familiar, but for its production details and aspects of representations of racism in a very specific context. The outline plot is straightforward. In India in 1944 a group of military bases are shared by British and American units. One night an American officer enters the sleeping quarters of other ranks and shoots a British NCO in cold blood, firing several times in front of witnesses. The murder is very damaging for US-British co-operation in the preparations for an offensive against the Japanese. The US general in charge summons an officer to defend the shooter in a court martial which everyone agrees will end with the convicted man being hung. Even so, a proper defence case must be made so that both the British and Americans are satisfied (nobody mentions what the Indians might think). This is essentially a courtroom drama with the sub-text that it is the American military institution which is under scrutiny, even when there is a war to be won.
The production was an American package made by three independent production companies for Twentieth Century Fox – a CinemaScope film in black and white made at the Associated British studios at Elstree. The leading cast members and the producers were American but the crew and other cast members were British (Trevor Howard is listed as a ‘guest star’). There was some second-unit work in India but primarily this is a British production as part of Hollywood’s move to overseas shoots in the this period. Perhaps the most significant credit was that for the writers. The film is adapted from a novel by Howard Fast, the American author perhaps best-known for his novel Spartacus (1951), adapted as a film in 1960. Fast was extremely productive of novels and short stories. He was a prominent communist party supporter until the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and had worked for the US Office of War Information during the Second World War. I find it odd that the adaptation of Fast’s novel The Winston Affair (1959) was commissioned from the British writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Both Willis and Hall had experienced military service in the post-war period and Willis had written The Long and the Short and the Tall as a play which was then adapted as a film in 1961 (about British troops in Malaya in 1942). Alongside this, Hall and Waterhouse had a very productive partnership but their main genre was comedy and neither had much experience of the American military as far as I can discern.
The film narrative works reasonably well as a courtroom drama. The central figure of the defence counsel is played by Robert Mitchum as Lt-Colonel Barney Adams who has experience of Army regulations and had acted before as counsel in a court martial. He arrives straight from military hospital, walking with a stick. His Silver Star and Purple Heart give him extra authority. Bizarrely, the Mitchum character is supposed to be the son of a West Point alumni of the local commander General Kempton (Barry Sullivan). Sullivan was just five years older than Mitchum. Mitchum is the film’s star and he plays to his star image but in a relatively restrained manner. The only really false note in the narrative structure is the relationship Adams has with a nurse played by the French-Chinese actor France Nuyen who was second-billed on the film posters. The nurse does have a functional role in providing a crucial document and in challenging Adams over his conduct of the case but the ‘romance’ is mostly irrelevant. However, Nuyen’s mixed race heritage is an indicator of a major issue in the film – racial difference and how it is handled in the American and British military administrations in India.
As far as I am aware, US military regulations in 1944 still maintained segregated roles and living/social arrangements for black personnel.There have been a number of novels and films that deal with incidents in which black GIs are discriminated against by white officers and men during their time in the UK during the Second World War, for example in the film Yanks (1979) and in the Nevil Shute novel The Chequer Board (1947). In both narratives, the locals tend to support the black GIs (something corroborated by various newspaper reports from the period). The American authorities did not send black servicemen to all overseas postings, but they were sent to the Asian theatre as well as to the UK. I have only very limited knowledge of the American presence in India in 1944, but India was still a British colonial territory and forms of a ‘colour bar’ did operate in India, especially in social clubs. My feeling about the film is that although the second unit footage offers a realist presentation, mainly in long shot, of various Indian townscapes etc., the internal scenes do not feel in any way authentic. Rather they seem typical of many Hollywood films. In Man in the Middle, we are presented with an American officers’ club which some British officers attend. There appear to be Indian servants but I don’t remember any African-Americans. However, when Adams arrives at the base he is assigned a black driver (played by Trinidadian actor Errol John). When he visits his client, Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) in prison, the guards are mostly black. I wondered if this was meant to be realist or perhaps instead was meant to ‘speak’ to the Civil Rights supporters in the US in 1964?
When Adams manages to get some responses from Winston in terms of why he shot S/Sgt Quinn that night, the main issue appears to be Winston’s racist views. Quinn was white but appeared to Winston to be friendly towards ‘the blacks up country’. It’s difficult for audiences now, I think, to understand whether Winston’s racism is an issue as such since Adams’ only possible strategy is to present Winston as clinically insane. Does the US Army care either way as long as he is found guilty and can be sentenced? I won’t spoil any more of the plot.
Guy Hamilton directed the film as his tenth feature (he made Godlfinger in the same year and would go onto direct four Bond films). It was photographed by Wilkie Cooper, already a distinguished veteran of British cinema productions with music by John Barry. It’s perhaps not surprising that Trevor Howard steals the film when he roars into a scene towards the end of the film. He was very much ‘at home’ on the set and had worked with director Hamilton many times before. In this film he plays a Medical Officer, Major Kensington, posted ‘up country’ who just happens to have been a psychiatrist before the war. Interestingly, Adams, a career soldier, seems to get on with Kensington whereas he loathes having to deal with the two lawyers assigned as his assistants because they are enlisted men.
There is a long history in post-war British cinema of UK-US productions, either Hollywood studios coming to the UK to make films or British companies importing American stars (usually second division players but still stars to a UK audience). Sometimes such films work very well but there is often something which just seems ‘off’ in terms of British culture, especially if the films are made with an American audience in mind. The line that got me in the whole film was when Major Kensington visits the US Officer’s Club bar and Adams asks him what he is doing in an American bar. He replies that the beer is never cold enough in an English bar. I think Waterhouse and Hall must have felt they needed to include this line, which became a cliché as proclaimed by every American GI who went into a British pub in a wartime film. Perhaps it was a sly joke? The irony is that one of the most famous forms of bottled beer in England is IPA, a beer developed specifically in the 18th century for export to India with extra alcohol and hop content to ensure it remained palatable in the heat. ‘IPA’ is now also a popular ‘craft beer’ in the US.
In its review (June 1964) Monthly Film Bulletin makes the observation that the film struggles to present American officers after they were satirised so expertly by Kubrick in Dr Strangelove (UK 1964), which was released in the UK a few months earlier. Watching the courtroom scenes, they did remind me of Kubrick’s earlier Paths of Glory (US 1957) in which a French military leadership attempts to convict a soldier at a court martial during the First World War, but selects the wrong counsel for defence.