Germany 1954, and on this British Army base tonight Lance-Bombadier Evans (David Warner) has just returned from a classical concert, not that he tells his superior officer so when he is confronted. Anyway, he has to see one of the top brass in their recreation room, and dutifully goes along dreading what the reason could be. He needn't have worried, as he informed of very good news: he is being sent back to Britain with a chance of a promotion; he's not bothered about the latter part, but being on his home soil once more would make him very happy. There's just one thing left to do: oversee the guard duty overnight, and as long as nothing goes wrong he'll be heading to Britain within the day...
Naturally it all goes horribly wrong because it was that sort of spiteful story in a drama taking the side of the most obnoxious character, Private O'Rourke, an Irish recruit who makes it his business to be as awkward as possible, and all to ensure the decent yet weak-willed Evans fails to get his dearest wish come true. The supposedly more authentic O'Rourke was played by Nicol Williamson, in a role written for him on the stage, which you could tell because it was a character patently designed to appeal to his instincts and strengths, which were at their best often when he was at his most aggressive. A powerhouse on the stage - his reading of the Dane was regarded as one of the all time greats - when it came to film Williamson was more difficult to cast.
He was a difficult man anyway, and tales of his behaviour, which included bashing his colleagues when he lost his patience with them, became legend in theatrical circles, his short temper both the source of the energy he could bring to his roles and also the reason so many found him hard to work with. But movies were a different matter, they required an alternative discipline which did not always bring out the best in his mighty talent, which was why John McGrath's script for The Bofors Gun was so precious to those wanting a record of what Williamson was capable of, working in conjunction with director Jack Gold, like McGrath someone who had cut their teeth at the BBC and stayed with them for a long career. Williamson made fewer appearances on the small screen.
If you didn't have access to a theatre he was appearing in, the next best thing would be to attend one of his films, and now of course with Williamson long gone from this world it's the only way to appreciate him close to first hand. His O'Rourke was something to relish in terms of his bullish personality as he runs rings around Evans where everyone else in the guardhouse has an opinion on what to do with him once he gets out of control. He knows Evans must not put anyone on a charge tonight if he wants to go home the next morning, which is why he acts up as much as he does, but there's more to it than that as O'Rourke is entertaining himself by taking advantage of the man's essentially meek nature to make some point or other about the class system.
The Bofors Gun (which is what these men have been assigned to guard) had a lot on its mind as far as class went, seeing resentment brought about between rich and poor, privileged and underclass, even British and Irish with a dose of sectarianism in there too as Ian Holm's Protestant character is believed by O'Rourke to have it in for him because of the religious divide between them, when he could just as easily have lost patience with the rebel's troublemaking. Also in the cast was John Thaw, beginning a long association with Gold (mostly on television), as O'Rourke's drinking buddy who ends up getting him thoroughly inebriated, jeopardising Evans' fragile dreams, and Peter Vaughan was a superior who insists on leading checks on what they are all getting up to, more pressure for Evans. The whole cast seized their opportunities with McGrath's salty dialogue not the sort that audiences often heard in cinemas in 1968, but the fact remained to make its point it built up to a ridiculous finale: you simply cannot believe a bully like O'Rourke would go that far. Trumpety music by Carl Davis.