Guns at Batasi is a strange war film, because it doesn’t really have a war per se: there is a coup d’etat in an unknown African country, but it’s very much a film about the end of British colonial rule. Richard Attenborough stars as the very by-the-book Regimental Sergeant-Major Lauderdale, who even has a well-waxed comedy mustache to boot. The film was directed by John Guillermin, who was known for big action films. However, in the mid-’60s he did some more offbeat films, and this is one of those.
Laurderdale, the members of his regiment and some guests are basically put under house arrest in their compound while the coup d’etat is going on outside. He uses all his training to secretly arm his men and rescue one of them from a firing squad. At one point Laurderdale have to make a decision about whether to obey or disobey orders.
The film really hinged on the performance of Attenborough, who was almost chameleon-like in the way that he could inhabit a role. Attenborough, like most men of his generation, had served in the military (the Air Force, to be exact) so he would’ve known these very old-school doctrinaire military men. He is was equally if not more famous for his directing, but he really should be held up as one of the greatest character actors cinema ever had to offer. The film bizarrely has Mia Farrow as a UN secretary who has to take shelter at the compound. The singer John Leydon, of the haunting, Joe Meek-produced “Johnny Remember Me” fame, also plays the key role of Private Wilkes.
The film has got such a strange atmosphere from the get-go and doesn’t let up. It reminded me of the Sidney Lumet film The Hill, which came out a year later in 1965. That film deals with a group of military prisoners being held in a jail in the Libyan desert. It’s nowhere near as good as that film, but it’s a surprisingly progressive film about race relations. That said, it’s nowhere near politically correct in today’s day and age, Laurderdale does get angry at one of the soldiers and uses a racial slur. However, it’s a fascinating film with a knock-out performance from Attenborough. While it doesn’t quite completely gel altogether, there is plenty to admire.
The release includes the film on Blu-ray and DVD, a commentary from John Leyton, and the film’s trailer.