“Guns at Batasi” is a British war movie directed by John Guillermin (“The Blue Max”). It was based on the novel The Siege of Battersea by Robert Holles. It was filmed at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom. It has a cast of venerable British war movie stars and one up and coming sexpot. Actually, Mia Farrow’s role was supposed to be played Britt Ekland, but newlywed husband Peter Sellers did not trust her to avoid the charms of John Leyton. Leyton was a pop star and was coming off his performance as the dreamy Willie in “The Great Escape”.
The movie takes place in an undisclosed African nation which most likely is Kenya. Or some other nation prone to a coup d’etat. I guess that means it could have been any African nation. As far as the imperial power, it doesn’t take the accents to figure that it’s Great Britain. The action takes place on a military base. The country is newly independent and word arrives to turn over command to the senior African officer. Into this awkward transitional phase comes a liberal Member of Parliament named Miss Barker-Wise and her sexy secretary Karen (Farrow). At a dinner, the MP spouts about the Africans ruling themselves. Since the movie was released in 1962 one can imagine half the audience shaking their heads and half nodding theirs. The British officers harrumph at her enlightened political views. Especially Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale (Richard Attenborough). He is a martinet and a blowhard. If this was an American movie, he would be the villain.
Before the new government can even begin to be corrupt, there is a mutiny in the army. A traitor among the African soldiers at the base arrests the British commanding officer and his men lay siege to the barracks where the dinner is taking place. A wounded African officer named Abraham has taken refuge with the Brits and they are not disposed to turn him over to sure execution. All this turmoil really puts a crimp into the lame romance brewing between Karen and Private Wilkes (Leyton). So the coup does have a positive side. Lauderdale takes charge because in a situation like this you want a proper bastard.
“Guns at Batasi” is short and sweet. It means to tap into the debate over the fall of the British Empire. Lauderdale represents the Winston Churchill wing and Barker-Wise represents the Clement Atlee wing. The movie comes down on the side of Lauderdale, but Barker-Wise does get to tear him a new one at the dinner. She perceptively accuses him of being a weapon that can’t wait to be fired. The movie does not demonize the Africans, although it is a bit patronizing. In an interesting touch, the African language is not subtitled. The movie does not have a lot of action so the entertainment value is almost totally due to the very appealing cast. The dialogue matches the performers. There is some typically dry British humor.
Forgotten gem? It is entertaining, but not a must-see.