Africa remains a continent in transition, and there seem to be revolutions and coups d'etat every month as a power struggle ensues after the Colonial powers have been withdrawing. In this corner of the land, near a town called Batasi, there is a British Army camp where their presence is tolerated by the locals if not entirely embraced by all of them, and as a couple of British soldiers, Dodger (Graham Stark) and Parkin (Percy Herbert) race through the heat-blasted countryside they are unprepared for what greets them in the town itself. Something approaching a riot is brewing, but not wishing to alarm anyone they return to the base and head straight for the bar, noting along the way the Regimental Sergeant Major, Lauderdale (Richard Attenborough) is up to his old tricks...
Attenborough won the BAFTA for this year as leading man in both Guns at Batasi and Séance on a Wet Afternoon, two excellent performances from a sometimes-underrated actor whose heritage cinema directorial endeavours overshadowed his earlier achievements as a performer. Therefore it's refreshing to return to a film like this and witness how he understood how to command the screen in an aptly commanding performance as a British Army officer who does not quite grasp how his style of leadership has become an anachronism with its rules and regulations, many of which come across as needlessly pointless, especially to those Africans who previously were forced to comply with them without question.
This was not a post-colonial movie that looked at the consequences of those powers pulling out of the territories they invaded centuries before in some cases and regarded what could be a crisis in terms of black and white, as it was far more complex than that, and Robert Holles' plot was well aware there was justifiably mixed feeling among those who lived there and those who were posted there that generated a resentment that still had not deserted the regions. Lauderdale was the epitome of the disciplinarian which gave the Empire a bad name, yet the film was not about to create a cartoon character, nor a straw man, and Attenborough exhibited surprising nuance in what could have been one-dimensional in other hands.
He was supported by a fine cast who took the basic siege story that would be seen again in even more stark relief in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and was sort of a smaller scale callback to the then-recent Zulu, and lent it personality and urgency. This was a fairly low budget production, shot almost entirely at Pinewood Studios aside from a brief look at the standing-in English countryside and a smattering of stock footage, but made to look more expansive by its Cinemascope lensing, helped by the expressive stylings of the thespians who were largely of the character actor type. Mia Farrow, in effectively her debut, was an exception to that, offered the love interest role to pop star John Leyton who was attempting to launch an acting career, but they were sidelined in favour of the more experienced professionals.
As for the story, this had an uprising occurring in the unnamed nation (Batasi was a pun on Battersea, a neighbourhood of London, for some reason), which threatens to tip over into full-scale war, and the Brits are caught up in it, now more useless than they ever were before for, as the film was keen to point out, now they had exacerbated the local tensions that boiled over into violence thanks to their rule that they were relinquishing, they were about to feel a very substantial pinch when they wound up on the wrong end of the weaponry they had brought to the land. Errol John, himself an actor and playwright, was highly impressive as the representative of the new regime who places Lauderdale's charges under that siege when they shelter Earl Cameron as an injured local official he wishes to try for treason, but everyone in the bar knows will mean his execution. The dilemma may have been talky, as dialogue was cheaper than effects or grand locations, but Attenborough lifted its suspense to admirable degrees, a good show all round in fact. Music by John Addison.