Take one terrific performance by Richard Attenborough, add the nature of the character he plays, throw in politics, the British Army, mutiny, the end of Empire...and you have a strangely affecting and engrossing film that you may remember for quite awhile.
Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale (Richard Attenborough) and a detachment of the British Army are based outside Batasi, a town in a newly independent East African nation which had been part of the colonial empire. Lauderdale is at once pompous, narrow-minded, serious and proud. He is a dedicated professional soldier who has reached the top rank for a non-commissioned officer. He presents himself immaculately; he believes in traditions and rules; he is ram-rod straight and can strip hide off a malefactor at the top of his voice. "Now understand this, Wilkes! I can stomach a good soldier whatever his faults. What I can't stomach are Bolshies, skivers, scrimshankers and bunkhouse barristers. I've broken more of them than you've had eggs for breakfast!" And he is shrewd at war. He is resourceful and courageous. He knows his business.
A revolt against the government starts and most of the country's army takes part to overthrow the old and bring in the new. The British officers and NCOs at the base near Batasi are held at gun point in their respective messes. While the local British representatives keep a practical eye peeled for which way the wind is blowing, RSM Lauderdale, alone with only five sergeants and one enlisted man, is determined, in the absence of any officers or instructions, to do his duty. He will not acquiesce to unlawful orders from the rebels. He will not turn over to the rebels a seriously wounded native officer. He will defend the mess and the people in it, including the visiting and opinionated Miss Baker Wise, a member of Parliament played by Flora Robson. When Lauderdale organizes and leads a raid on the base's arms depot, now controlled by rebel soldiers, to bring arms back to the mess, he has to face a woman whose opinions are as certain as his own. "Has it occurred to you," Miss Baker Wise says emphatically, "that the rebels, or whatever you choose to call them, were leaving us alone because we were unarmed? What you are doing can only provoke more bloodshed." "Well, that's a matter of opinion," he tells her. "I'm surprised at you, ma'am. I thought you believed in all men being equal." "Of course I do. That's precisely the point." "Well," RSM Lauderdale tells her firmly, "they had guns and we didn't. That's not very equal, is it?"
While Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale organizes his sergeants and uses cunning and bluff to hold off a larger and better-armed rebel force, shifts in politics and power take place. He may lead a dangerous excursion with one other man to spike two rapid-fire artillery pieces brought to aim at the mess, but when the rebels win and take over the government, he finds himself more dangerously exposed that any military action would. The end of the movie leaves us with a great deal of respect for this rigid, professional Army man who's whole life is bound up in the certitudes of duty and tradition.
Attenborough's performance is extraordinary. At first it seems almost over the top, a comic caricature out of Carry On, Sergeant or Monty Python. During the next 20 minutes you realize that, while he may be smiled at behind his back by his sergeants and casually condescended to by his officers, he has his own dignity which is unshakeable. And for the last 70 minutes you come to realize that if you ever had to take part in a real crisis and battle, you could do far worse than be led by Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale.
His sergeants are played by reliable character actors whose faces will be remembered by those who enjoy British movies, Percy Herbit, David Lodge, John Mellon, Graham Stark and Bernard Horsefall. Jack Hawkins plays Colonel Deal, Lauderdale's colonel and a man who understands that compromises have to be made.
The DVD looks very good. There is a useful commentary by John Leyton, the actor who played the enlisted British soldier. It's value lies in Leyton's recollections about Attenborough and how he prepared for the role. Attenborough was, Leyton says, completely the opposite of a regimental sergeant major, but "in character he was spot on." Guns at Batasi is a well-made movie.