“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929
Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper film League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes for a living, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; as if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy, dryly comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The man was a master at making mainstream, commercial films that packed powerful, at times very pro-counter culture messages.
The year before he directed the all-star ensemble cast of League of Gentlemen, Dearden made Sapphire, a police procedural about a couple of cops trying to solve a murder. In doing so, they stumble into the middle of the hyper-charged racial tension boiling to the surface in London. In that film, the social message is front and center, becomes the very essence of the plot, and the viewer is not granted any sort of emotional reprieve by forays into comedy. With League of Gentlemen, Dearden’s intent is no less political, but the message of the film — about the treatment of veterans after their service in a war and the difficulty combat veterans have readjusting to civilian life — is couched in the language of a heist film, with ample touches of humor to lighten what could be a much heavier film (as we would see a a little over a decade later in the United States, with films about returning veterans of Vietnam).
A year after League of Gentlemen, Dearden would direct another serious, controversial film about a touchy social issue. 1961’s Victim stars Dirk Bogarde as a closeted gay lawyer who discovers a blackmail ring preying on other gay men — homosexuality being a crime punishable by imprisonment at the time. Risking his own exposure, Bogarde decides to apply himself to unmasking the blackmailers and seeing them punished. The film is generally regarded as the spark that started a gay rights movement in the UK that eventually saw the abandonment of anti-homosexual laws. All of which makes it odd to me that so many British critics dismiss Dearden’s films as empty, meaningless, and bureaucratic. Not everything he made dwelled on social and political topics — The Assassination Bureau is really nothing more than a jaunty romp (albeit one with Oliver Reed blowing up a lot of people) — but Dearden’s films seem to me to often strike that sweet spot where they are commercially viable but also socially challenging. Then again, I was not alive in England in 1960, so perhaps I’ve misread utterly the climate of the time or am too biased by a specific selection of his films.
League of Gentlemen begins with a scene that seems like it should have come from a German krimi film based on the lunatic mystery novels of Edgar Wallace. A well-dressed man in smart evening wear emerges from a manhole somewhere on one of the steamy streets of London then proceeds to enter a waiting Rolls Royce. He drives himself home and then sets about the task of writing seven letters. Each of these he places in a parcel alongside an American potboiler novel called The Golden Fleece, ten half-£5-notes, and an invitation to lunch at the Cafe Royal (a restaurant established at 68 Regent Street in London’s Piccadilly by a Frenchman fleeing his bills in 1865; it was renown as having one of the best wine cellars in all of England. Sadly, it closed in 2008 and was converted into a hotel).
This man, we learn, is Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (storied British actor Jack Hawkins — Oh! What a Lovely War, Theatre of Blood, The Lodger, The Bridge on the River Kwai…so on and so forth), a decorated veteran of the British army who has been unceremoniously dumped into retirement. “Made redundant.” Each of the seven parcels are delivered to similarly discharged veterans, though unlike Hyde, each of them left the armed forces under some cloud of disrepute and have arrived at undesirable, sometimes criminal stations in life. Hyde’s pitch to them, by way of the pulp novel, is to use their combined military experience to pull off a bank robbery. Not like common thieves, mind you, but with the planning and precision of accomplished soldiers. At the end of it all, they will each be £100,000 richer.
For many fans of older heist movies, the most important thing isn’t the crime itself; it’s the scenes of planning and, even more important, the scenes of “putting the crew together.” And indeed much of League of Gentlemen‘s run-time is concerned with showing us the lives of each of the eventual conspirators as they receive Hyde’s cryptic invitation. This crew is a virtual who’s who of British players, including Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesey, Terence Alexander, Bryan Forbes, Kieron Moore, Norman Bird, and Richard “I brought dinosaurs back to life” Attenborough. Each of the men brings a specific set of skills to the scheme, as well as each being desperate enough to say yes to the idea of a bank robbery based almost entirely on the plot of a middling pulp novel (in the book on which this movie is based, author John Boland uses the title of a real crime novel, Lionel White’s Clean Break — itself the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, The Killing). Planners for future capers take note: although the crew includes many a scoundrel, it contains no raving lunatics and psychopaths.
Much of the film is also taken up with the heist-before-the-heist. Guns other than hunting rifles being difficult to obtain in England, Hyde has decided the weapons they will use in the heist must first be stolen from a nearby military base — allowing them not only to arm themselves with state-of-the-art gear, but also allowing them to stick it to the military that slighted them all. This entire plan is based on actual occurrences. In 1954, the Irish Republican Army launched two separate raids on English military bases to capture weapons and ammunition. In both cases, one in June at Armagh and the second in October at Omagh (oh, those Irish names), members of the IRA infiltrated the bases disguised as British soldiers and took advantage of on-base distractions such as dances to obscure their chicanery. Even these weren’t the first time the IRA equipped themselves by robbing their British foes. In December of 1939, they mounted the first of such plans, known as the Christmas Raid and, as was the case many years later, took advantage of lax security and distractions caused by festive base events. The version that appears in League of Gentlemen is an amalgamation of both the 1954 raids, and like those — and like every single movie heist ever that has every move planned down to the last second — it doesn’t go off without a few hitches to heighten the suspense.
Having armed themselves, Hyde and the lads set about the more important of their two schemes, though once again in classic heist film form, the main heist only takes up a few minutes of the film’s time. It is, however, exceptionally well done, with the crew donning intimidating gas masks (conjuring images of London during the Blitz) and firing off their purloined machine guns while smoke bombing the entire bank so that they make off with the loot without actually seriously harming anyone. As with just about every heist in heist film history, they took care of every single detail… except one.
If this plot about a group of soldiers getting together to pull off a robbery with military precision sounds familiar — I mean, familiar from somewhere other than League of Gentlemen — it’s because it’s been used several times since then. Most famously, with a few tweaks, more humor (or less British humor I suppose), and more “hey babe” cocktail culture swankiness, League of Gentleman shares a plot with the American film Ocean’s Eleven, also released in 1960 and starring a similarly brawny list of who’s who that included just about every member of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Pete Lawford, Joey Bishop, Henry Silva, Angie Dickinson, and of course, Norman Fell). Incidentally, the original version of the Rat Pack (the 1960s version preferred to be called “The Summit”) was fronted by Sinatra but actually centered around Humphrey Bogart. Among its members were Caesar Romero (who appears in Ocean’s Eleven), British actor David Niven, Lauren Bacall (“The Den Mother”), Judy Garland (“The Vice President”), and Cary Grant. Grant, it turns out, was originally offered the role of Hyde in League of Gentlemen, with Niven pegged to play his right-hand-man.
Decades after Ocean’s Eleven (but before the remake of Ocean’s Eleven), the idea of a group of army buddies coming together for one big heist was revived and retooled, becoming Dead Presidents, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes in 1995. There is little political about Ocean’s Eleven. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) and his crew all seem pretty well off. They decide to pull a heist — in the case of that particular movie, robbing multiple Las Vegas casinos at the same time on New Year’s Eve — mostly as a lark and because why the hell not? The politics in League of Gentlemen are more substantial, but I’d hardly call them substantial, especially compared to other Dearden films like Sapphire and Victim. There is something there however, something about the way a country uses up its military men then, when their time is done, tosses them back into society with little preparation and often with little to support them beyond a fabulously inept and corrupt system of veterans’ affairs. Making this point however, is not the film’s primary focus. League of Gentlemen is more interested in being a breezy, humorous little thriller.
Dead Presidents is the most overtly and savagely political of the three. In its case, the veterans are all young American black men who served in Vietnam and returned home to shattered communities, racism, drugs, and the rising tide of the black empowerment movement. In each case, we can see a set of motivations decreed by class and circumstance. For the cats in Ocean’s Eleven, it’s just a way to amuse themselves. For the League of Gentlemen, the motivation is a mixture of revenge against the system and a desire to improve one’s station in life. For the crew in Dead Presidents, the motivation is a combination of desperation, anger, hopelessness, and in the case of black rights activist Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), political.
In Ocean’s Eleven, they are all old Army buddies, but there’s not much thought given to that beyond being an excuse for them to know each other and be able to come up with plans that require Sinatra to read off a lot of timetables. In League of Gentlemen, more attention is paid to the military careers of each of the “gentlemen” (a term applied, in some cases, ironically). It takes on an almost Dirty Dozen style explanation of each man and the trouble in which he found himself (and in fact, at its core, Dirty Dozen is sort of a heist movie that seems influenced by League of Gentlemen). But as to showing us the service of each man, that is not the aim of the film. Dead Presidents however is structured as much like a “coming-of-age” film as it is a heist film, and it spends a considerable amount of time showing us the childhood of the main character and his gruesome combat experiences in Vietnam before moving on to the actual portion of the film revolving around the robbery. Which goes to show that the same plot can be implemented in very different ways with very different atmospheres. Although more overtly political and bleaker, Dead Presidents really is the most like League of Gentlemen, even if League‘s melancholy is buried under the stolid veneer of dry British humor and quirk.
Originally envisioned as a Hollywood film starring Cary Grant and David Niven, the inability of producer Carl Foreman to successfully obtain the services of Grant (who in 1959 was busy making North By Northwest and Operation Petticoat) caused the project to derail. The rights to the script by Bryan Forbes were then procured by Basil Dearden (One can assume it’s entirely probable that memories of the script eventually percolated up and became Ocean’s Eleven), who that same year had responded to the increasingly difficult process of getting proper studio funding for quality British films by starting his own production company with Forbes, Richard Attenborough, Guy Green, Jack Hawkins, and producer Michael Relph — sort of a British version of United Artists that was called Allied Film Makers. League of Gentlemen, after being tweaked to be a more properly British affair, was the first film the new partnership produced. It was the perfect project. This new crew of friends and professional associates going against the system, coming together to make a film about a crew of friends and associates going against the system?
It paid off in spades. League of Gentlemen was one of the top grossing British films of 1960. In that year, the scars of the Second World War were still relatively fresh in the minds of the British public. Many of the wartime veterans were entering middle age, and a goodly many of them had, like the rascals of League of Gentlemen, found it difficult to re-acclimate to civilian life and adjust to a life of marriage, mundane jobs, dull apartments and houses. Their budding midlife crises reminded them that, just fifteen years ago, they’d been duking it out with Hitler, sharing cigarettes with comrades on the front, defending British air space from the Luftwaffe’s blitz. How do you go from that to saying “yes, sir” to some petty bank manager or telling your kids to eat their dinner? And though this movie in particular stems from the male wartime experience, let’s not forget that for many women the war was equally harrowing and heroic. How do you ask a woman who was helping to break the Enigma code, serving as a front line nurse, or being parachuted behind enemy lines as a spy for the SOE to come home and be content with a life of changing diapers and caring for a husband?
Whatever scoundrels they might have been, the winking thieves of League of Gentlemen struck a chord with many viewers who were finding peaceful British life unbearable, who looked at post-war England and thought that, though no one wanted a war back, something vital and adventurous had been lost in the transition to peace. What’s more, many felt that the men and women who fought this incomprehensibly epic struggle had been tossed back after the war with no real concern for their well-being or respect for what they’d sacrificed. Entrenched as we are, as this is being written in the final months of 2014, in another protracted (if very different) war, the issue of how a nation treats its combat veterans after their tour of duty is over remains a tender and unresolved sore spot. Men and women returning from war are faced with everything from the dismissal of post-traumatic stress to the nightmare that is navigating the VA hospital system. Politicians who blithely send people off to war are more than happy to screw those same people when they return, robbing them of treatment and benefits earned, and tossing them back into a civilian economy that, while better than it was eight years ago, is still in a state of depression. Which is part of the reason League of Gentlemen seems to have aged so little. The accents might have changed, the war might be different, but the core impetus that inspires Hyde to mount this complicated heist remains.
Of course, it’s just a cracking fun movie as well, which helps. We’ve written time and again about how professional British actors rarely deliver anything less than a solid performance. With League of Gentleman, you get some of the best the British film industry had to offer doing their best. After all, it was their own production company. Almost everyone with a main role in the film also had a stake in Allied Film Makers. No complaining about the boss. In the lead role, craggy-faced Jack Hawkins is exceptional. The fact that the script spends so much time telling the stories of each of the men makes them much more relatable. It makes the complex double-heist that much more tense. And the air of jaunty British can-do keeps the undercurrent of politics from becoming oppressive. None of the robbers is a perfect human. They are robbers, after all, and most were dismissed from the army for some criminal indiscretion. “You’re all crooks, aren’t you?” asks Hyde of his motley crew, “Of one kind or another.” Despite their faults, however, and their occasional distrust and personal quirks, the film convinces you to like them.
With so many British pros executing their craft on-screen, one can almost forget poor Basil Dearden behind the camera. His direction is rarely flashy, but it more than gets the job done. The two heists, in particular, are expertly shot and edited. In the case of the raid on the arms depot, cutting between the hoax being perpetrated to facilitate the actual theft, with all its complicated moving parts, lends the scene a great air of tension. The direction of the bank heist is different, but no less effective. Shot quickly, with a cacophony of noise and movement and confusion, it’s a breath-taking sequence, even if you happen to be wearing a gas mask. It’s one of the best bank robberies film has ever produced, not really being matched until Michael Mann’s Heat, released the same year as Dead Presidents and featuring a central heist that is just as exciting — and just as brief — as the one in League of Gentlemen. Although Dearden’s movie is a largely light-hearted and spirited affair, he still knows how and when to ratchet up the stakes. In fact, it’s probably because so much of the film is infused with witty panache that it’s two big set-pieces take on such a greater air of gravity.
It’s not an action packed film; only the final heist has anything akin to action, the raid on the military base being played more for tension than thrills. But like I said, a good heist film is rarely about the heist itself. It’s about everything leading up to (and sometimes happening after) the heist. In that regard, there’s a reason the template set by League of Gentlemen has been used by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Hughes Brothers. A group of inspired British film makers making their own movie, on their own terms, with a defiant twinkle in their collective eye makes for a very engaging caper. Unfortunately for Allied Film Makers, this would prove to be their one and only big hit. Subsequent films produced by the partnership did not generate the same sort of success, and the group went under in fairly short order (just like what happens in most heist films). But if the movie you leave behind as a testament to your vision is League of Gentlemen, then you’ve done very well indeed.