Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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The Queen's Guards (1961)
After finally seeing The Queen's Guards at the San Sebastian film festival I can now write a review of it.
- Steve Crook
Well, it sure ain't no lost masterpiece :)
It does show how much of a contribution Emeric made to the Archers as the story is very scrappy.
It also shows that Michael wasn't a good director of military action sequences!
We start with various shots of London prior to a "Trooping the Colour" parade for the Queen's birthday - her "official" birthday on June 11th.
John Fellowes (Daniel Massey) narrates over these various shots and we learn he is a Captain in the Grenadier Guards and he is being given the honour of commanding the colour party.
A bit of background (not explained in the film): The soldiers you see in the red uniforms with the bearskins (not busbys) and the ones on horseback that you see outside Buck House and at Horseguards Parade (and on postcards from London) are members of the regiments of guards, originally the sovereign's own troops and some of the oldest regiments in the British Army.
They perform most of the ceremonial duties at state occasions but they are not just "toy soldiers". They are fighting regiments that also do ceremonial duties. One of the main aims of the film was meant to be to show this.
There are two mounted regiments of guards, the Life Guards and the Blues & Royals. There are 5 regiments of foot, the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, the Scots, Welsh & Irish Guards. You can differentiate the mounted regiments by the colour of their uniforms (Life Guards - red, Blues & Royals, blue) and the regiments of foot by the arrangement of their buttons (and collar tabs if you get close enough). Grenadiers have evenly spaced buttons on the front of their tunics, Coldstream have buttons in pairs, Scots in 3s, Irish in 4s & Welsh in 5s.
In their combat roles they are light armoured & reconnaissance troops. In A Bridge Too far, Michael Caine was leading a squadron of Irish Guards to spearhead the ground based push towards Arnhem.
The ceremony of "Trooping the Colour" dates back to the dim and distant past. "The Colour" is the regimental flag with all their battle honours on it. So that they could properly recognise and thus know which side they were on, the Colour would be paraded (trooped) in front of the regiment in a special parade before a battle. This was then turned into a ceremonial. Because of the importance attached to the Colour it is considered a great honour to be the soldier actually carrying it (the ensign), one of the Colour party protecting it or to be in charge of the Colour party.
OK, so back to the film.
There were a lot of distant shots of guardsmen getting ready & then parading (all taken with Royal approval). These interspersed the closeup shots of the actors in our drama (but you could easily tell which were the REAL guardsmen <G>).
The camera takes us from Whitehall, where all the government offices are, through the arch (below Wellington's office), across Horseguards Parade and up to the Guards memorial which commemorates their fallen comrades.
As Captain John Fellowes stands on Horseguards Parade ready for his big number he thinks back, in a disjointed series of flashbacks, to his training. He got into trouble when someone suggested his brother was a coward & he punched them. On an exercise he left his flank open and it was suggested that was how his brother had died and that he had led to a lot of people being killed unnecessarily.
There are also some confused shots of a man running a haulage business and his daughter. It appears she is John's girlfriend and they are going to see the ceremony but the father hates all guardsmen for some reason.
Another flashback to the days at Sandhurst Military Academy. One of the other officer cadets who was rude about John's brother offers John a lift back to London. John reluctantly accepts and the other officer is invited in. John's father (Ray Massey) it appears was also a Guards officer and is quite fanatical about the Guards. The eldest son in the family has been a Guards officer for as long as anyone can remember and they even live next door to the Guards barracks in London. The other cadet, Henry Wynne-Walton (Robert Stephens) becomes John's best friend for reasons not made clear (we miss you Emeric) and as young officers they go out on the town. John is going out with a model and sets up Wynne-Walton with her friend on a blind date. Somehow they swap partners while they are at the pub (where Jess Conrad is doing a rock'n'roll number) and sure enough, the "friend" is the daughter of the haulage contractor (she's played by Judith Stott, her father by Ian Hunter). When John goes to see him he explains that he was fighting in the desert and was let down by a platoon of Guards that were meant to hold a certain position - you guessed, it that was the platoon led by John's brother.
John's father (Ray Massey) is disabled, his legs don't work (we don't know why) and he hauls himself around the house by hooking canes into loops on an overhead rail. This system was designed by the "wonderboy" elder brother that John is always expected to live up to. His mother (Ursula Jeans aka Mrs Roger Livesey, Frau von Kalteneck in Blimp) thinks that the elder brother is just "missing in action" and will return someday. The father knows he's really dead but never seems to give John a chance.
We're all set up for the big parade with everyone there to see if John can at last do something honourable enough to get close to his elder brother in everyone's eyes.
But before that we have another few flashbacks! (I said the script was scrappy - it's all over the place)
John goes off into the desert somewhere unspecified to help suppress a "rebel uprising". It seems that when we weren't watching, John did some parachute training, so he parachutes in with some men to lead the attack on the rebel fortress (who mentioned "The Desert Song"?) and his friend, Wynne-Walton is to follow up in the armoured vehicles. The rebels have captured one of the leaders of the Empire, sorry, the side the British Army is supporting. We see they actually shoot him before the Brits get there but of course John doesn't know this.
Again we have lots of shots of real Guardsmen on exercise in the Lybian desert (before the time of Gaddafi) then close ups of the actors trying to look like real soldiers.
John and his men land near the fort. They are about to go in for a frontal attack when he remembers to check his flank & sees a machine gun that would wipe them out. John & a couple of men go to deal with the machine gun so that the sergeant can then lead the main attack.
This is where I say Powell couldn't direct military action sequences. John throws a grenade (they are the GRENADIER Guards after all) at the machine gun post. It lands one side of quite a large mound of sand but the "rebel" crouching on the other side of the mound falls over dead. They charge into the fort to rescue the captive that as far as they know is still alive. But they are throwing grenades & firing all over the place without having any idea where the captive is. If he hadn't already been killed it's unlikely he'd be alive after that attack.
So then we have some kind of flashback within the flashback where John discovers how his brother actually died. During WWII the brother had led an attack on a similar position. Most of his men and the defenders (German? Italian? we're not told) were killed. They have one prisoner. When the counter attack starts, they can't spare anyone to guard the prisoner, so they shoot him. When the counter attack overwhelms them, the attackers are so annoyed that the prisoner was shot in cold blood (how would they know?) that they shoot John's brother! John's father knows this but considers it to be such a disgrace that he shot an unarmed man that he denies it & prefers to think of the brother as a hero.
OK back at the fort with John. He has been wounded and can't walk very well (similar to his father) but he doesn't want history to repeat itself and manages to defend against the counter attack until Wynne-Walton turns up. The rebel leader is spotted and makes a break for it. He jumps out of the fort, right in front of Wynne-Walton's armoured scout vehicle. He refuses to surrender. Shots are fired, dust flies up around his feet but that somehow kills him!
One other rebel is still alive. He makes a break for it & John refuses to shoot him as the man is unarmed!
Back home there is a confrontation between John and his father. For some unknown reason, father suddenly acknowledges what really happened to big brother & forgives John and is willing to haul himself upstairs to watch the big parade. Why he couldn't just go to Horseguards Parade with everyone else we don't know.
Closing shots of the Colour being Trooped.
What a mess!!!
I'd have to see it a few more times to try to see if there really are any explanations or reasons for most of the events. There certainly don't seem to be.
Even the footage of the real guardsmen is a bit of a mess with shots of different regiments all mixed together.
A few nice location shots in and around London (Battersea bridge, Prospect of Whitby etc), desert scenes could be any desert or back lot. The final scenes of John visiting his brother's grave at the Tobruck military cemetery might have meant something but I was giving up the will to live by then. Nice long shot of the cemetery but then a close up of the brother's headstone spoiled it because the headstone looked much too new to have been there since WWII
Certainly not one to go out of your way for.
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