The Horse’s Mouth is a long, complex novel, narrated by an artist – Gulley Jimson. We see everything from Jimson’s point of view, and he sees the world as a series of paintings: the sun in the mist is like “an orange in a fried fish shop”; sunlight on a mudbank is “gold rough from the fire”. The theme of the book is the relationship between an artist and society. How does someone with an inner creative urge exist alongside the everyday 9 to 5 world which does not understand and even disapproves of him? Jimson lives a squalid life of poverty, using occasional petty crime to get on with his work. (The author of the book, Joyce Cary, should not be confused with the actress Joyce Carey. For a start, he was a man, from an Anglo-Irish family whose tradition was to give boys their mother’s maiden name as a first name. His mother was ‘Miss Joyce’ before marriage, so he became Joyce Cary.)
The film came about when Alec Guinness could not finish reading the book. His wife suggested developing a screenplay from the novel as an incentive, and Guinness became so involved he established a production company to make the film. The film is greatly simplified from the book, taking three major episodes for the plot. It still gives much insight into an artist’s vision and has been called "one of the best films ever about a painter".
As the film opens Jimson is being released from Wormwood Scrubs prison in London after threatening an old patron in an effort to get money out of him. He is met by ‘Nosey’, a schoolboy with dreams of being an artist. Jimson is exasperated by the boy. He cannot explain the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of art – for him it is like breathing. Jimson escapes by stealing the boy’s bike and goes to his studio, an old boat moored by the Thames, and his latest painting ‘The Fall of Man’, but he has no materials to work with. In the local pub he gets the barmaid, Coker (Kay Walsh), to lend him more money with a promise to pay her back when he gets a commission, or his patron repays him.
On a visit to the patron, Hickson (played by the cultiest of cult actors Ernest Thesiger), with Coker, it seems that after clearing all Jimson’s debts Hickson owes him nothing. Hickson’s butler has also noticed a few small items have ‘gone missing’ into Jimson’s pockets and the police are called. Enraged by this, Jimson smashes windows and makes his escape.
Making his way to the flat of Sir William and Lady Flora Beeder to investigate the promise of a commission, Jimson is immediately inspired to paint ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ on one of the walls. The Beeders are politely non-committal. Jimson gets drunk and passes out while trying to explain the nature of art. When he wakes, he finds the Beeders have left for a three-month holiday. He persuades the housekeeper to give him the key, and the doorman that he has permission to stay (becoming ‘Sir’ Gulley Jimson in the process). He settles in and sets to work, pawning the Beeders’ possessions to buy materials, assisted by Nosey who has quit school to follow his idol.
Eventually Jimson is joined in the flat by Abel Bisson (Michael Gough), a sculptor who wrecks the floors with a block of stone. The place descends into chaos as the artists work. When the Beeders return, the flat is empty apart from Jimson’s wall-painting, and Jimson is on the run again.
Sheltering with Nosey in a bombed out church, Jimson is inspired to paint a huge “Last Judgement” on an undamaged wall. Now he is in opposition to bureaucracy as the church is to be demolished. Dividing his design into sections, he uses art students to complete the work, funded again by the Beeders who now have a national treasure in their home. (Hickson has died and left his Jimson collection to the nation, making Jimson a recognised genius.) The painting is completed just in time to be destroyed. Jimson himself drives the bulldozer, as he feels only he has the right to do it. Returning to his boat/studio, Jimson casts off to sail down river to freedom, sizing up ships’ hulls as a new ‘canvas’ for his works.
The film has a far lighter and more comic tone than the book (in fact it seems to veer from seeing the artist as a serious subject, and simply as a loveable bohemian rogue, the Jimson of the book is more selfish and abrasive). Audiences still found it too ‘serious’, expecting Alec Guinness as an eccentric to be constantly funny. There are some very thoughtful moments, as when Jimson tries to explain how to view a painting (“feel it with your eye”), and moving moments, too. Completing the Beeders’ wall-painting, Jimson says it is not what he really wanted and worders why the finished painting is never what he sees in his mind. There is also a happier ending. In the book Jimson is putting the final touches to the “Last Judgement” when it is demolished and he is left holding his brush in empty air. A huge crowd laughs as he falls from his platform and breaks his neck, dying on the way to hospital. Here we are led to believe he will go on to more adventures and greater works.
Performances are all well-nigh perfect: Guinness plays Jimson as a man who is so obsessed with art he pauses to watch children drawing on pavements and with a gravelly voice from spending too much time living rough; Hickson is a prissy aesthete; Bisson a boorish “rock hacker”, and the Beeders bewildered by their exposure to creative thinking. Jimson’s sidekick Nosey is played by Mike Morgan who died suddenly before the film was completed. Some of his lines were actually looped by another actor, but it is impossible to tell which is which. It is notable that at one point, when Bisson tells Nosey to “buzz off”, Michael Gough’s lips form the words “drop dead” on screen, obviously this was changed on the grounds of taste.
Appropriately the film also looks beautiful, with excellent colour photography by Arthur Ibbetson, and nice location work showing London before re-development in the 1960’s. There are some striking images, too, such as Jimson starting work at the Beeders draped in a silk bedspread looking rather like a Renaissance pope.
Jimson’s paintings were executed by John Bratby who did a remarkable job of translating novelist Joyce Cary’s written descriptions of the works into their visual equivalent. The music is taken from ‘Lieutenant Kije’ by Prokofiev, and is suitably rumbustious and larger than life.