Moral choices were often central to 1950s British cinema. With Orders To Kill (1958), Anthony Asquith, the director of Pygmalion and The Winslow Boy, demonstrated his reach with an unblinking examination of the nature of politics and courage, both moral and physical. Young bomber pilot Gene Summers (Paul Massie) is sent to Nazi-occupied France to kill a man believed to be betraying his comrades in the French resistance. Willing to do his duty and kill on command from the air, he finds it a very different proposition when having to murder with his own bare hands. The film’s reputation as a minor classic is well won. Another (later) Asquith film is Guns of Darkness (1962), a film that subsequently vanished without causing much of a ripple. But Network have (as often before with neglected material) again made it available. The director was able to fashion an intriguing spin on France’s Clifford’s political novel, Act of Mercy. Although little read today, Clifford was one of the most adroit of British novelists working within the genre of the crime/espionage field; his métier was fashioning situations of extreme danger for his protagonists and freighting in a crise de conscience that pushes them to the furthest limits of human resilience. Act of Mercy in 1959 won the Crime Writers Association Dagger Award for that year. Clifford’s protagonist, Tom Jordan, is a successful businessman in a volatile South American country, with a regime supported by corporate money. His wife has just told him she is pregnant when the country erupts into murderous revolution, and the old regime is brutally exterminated in a totalitarian coup. All except Camara, the deposed president, who stumbles, bloody and weakened, into Jordan’s garden. Almost as a reflex action, Tom finds himself trying to spirit Camara out of the country – on foot, with Tom’s pregnant wife in tow, and with brutal soldiers on their trail. And when Jordan is forced to kill to protect his charges, he is forced to ask himself (as his wife has continually done) why he has thrown away everything he owns and risked their lives to protect a man he barely knew. For his adaption of the novel as Guns of Darkness, Asquith simplified the characterisation (the conflicted Jordan played by David Niven, the sympathetic, injured ex-president who sets the narrative in train, and Jordan’s wife Susan, a fully developed protagonist in the novel, much reduced for the film), but the director showed his usual skill at evoking landscape. However, what Asquith’s otherwise compromised film makes clear is the novel’s point about the tendrils of European big business having quite as negative impact on the country enjoying such largesse as the brutal revolutionary liberators. This (for the time) unusual attitude to interests once considered sacrosanct looks forward to the later, post-war novels of John le Carré; in the latter, the pendulum has swung to such a degree that Anglo-American capitalists are invariably painted a darker-than-pitch hue, capable of everything from large-scale corruption to ruthless murder. Asquith, in many ways a director of his time, nevertheless demonstrates a similar readiness to criticise supposedly benign business interests (le Carré avant la lettre, in fact), with a reluctance to toe any particular party line that distinguished him from his contemporaries, allowing his work to look relatively fresh in the 21st century, when so much else now looks dated and retrograde in its thinking. The film may also be read as an understated parable for the unwonted and unpredictable consequences of British interference in foreign affairs, however well-meaning – a reading all too apposite in the early 21st century, if Middle Eastern countries are swapped for Asquith’s Latin locales.


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