Equal Shares for All: The League of Gentlemen (1960)

LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, THE (1961)

To view The League of Gentlemen click here.

The League of Gentlemen (1960) contains one of my favorite moments from postwar British cinema; a group of ex-soldiers carrying submachine guns plow through London’s narrow streets with their faces concealed behind gas masks. Instead of dodging an attack they are preparing to rob a bank and their military uniforms have been replaced by civilian clothing. These masked figures are the stuff of nightmares and conjure up horrific images associated with two world wars that nearly brought the British empire to its knees. Despite their ferocious appearance and felonious behavior, the men are not monsters. They are the forgotten casualties of war. Battle-scarred and bitter, they have returned home to discover that their prospects are dwindling. Jobs are scarce and survival is difficult during peacetime when your skill set is limited to sharpshooting, military strategy and bomb construction. Is it any wonder that they have chosen a life of crime to secure a future for themselves?

Like many of the best heist films, The League of Gentlemen brings together a group of scoundrels and outcasts. This band of ne’er-do-well brothers is assembled by retired Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) and consists of conmen, racketeers, petty thieves, spies and gigolos who survive on the fringes of polite society while barely able to pay their mounting bills. The men are desperate for another chance at life and yearn for the male camaraderie they experienced during the war so they eagerly fall in line behind the colonel. Together they decide to commit a string of crimes that if successful, will net them all an equal sum of £100,000 (over a million dollars apiece in 1960). Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as predicted but the adventure is well worth taking for them and us.

LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, THE (1961)

Basil Dearden (Dead of Night [1945], Victim [1961], All Night Long [1961]) directed from a script based on a pulp novel written by John Boland that was in turn adapted for the screen by fellow director and actor Bryan Forbes (Séance on a Wet Afternoon [1964], King Rat [1965], The Stepford Wives [1975]). Besides his screenwriting credit, Forbes is also a cast member along with Jack Hawkins (Bridge on the River Kwai [1957], Ben-Hur [1959], Lawrence of Arabia [1962]), Nigel Patrick (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman [1951], The Sound Barrier [1952], Raintree County [1957]), Richard Attenborough (Brighton Rock [1947], The Great Escape [1963], 10 Rillington Place (1971]), Roger Livesey (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [1943], I Know Where I’m Going! [1945], A Matter of Life and Death (1946]), Kieron Moore (Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Doctor Blood’s Coffin [1961], The Day of the Triffids [1962]), Terence Alexander (The V.I.P.s [1963], The Vault of Horror (1973), The Day of the Jackal [1973]) and Norman Bird (The Angry Silence [1960], Whistle Down the Wind [1961], Victim [1961]). The actors are uniformly good and like the characters they play in the film, they were all enlisted men during WWII. Their natural aptitude with weapons and the apparent empathy they have with the characters they portray provides the film with some unexpected realism that reinforces the plot’s precarious emotional core. You may not want to root for criminals but The League of Gentlemen demands our sympathy and we want them to succeed.

LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, THE (1961)

The film was shot in a straightforward manner with very little flourishes but Dearden goes all out during the spectacular heist scene. A lot of the action is filmed using low angles and close-ups that ratchet up the suspense, which is palpable as the men roll into London and begin to carry out their plan. The decision to use smoke bombs to cloak their crime creates a nightmarish scenario that becomes the film’s pinnacle moment. As I alluded to in my opening paragraph, in their gas masks the gentlemen no longer resemble living breathing men. They have transformed into ghostly apparitions of war.

Much like America’s Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones [1958], Judgement of Nuremberg [1961], Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner [1967]), director Basil Dearden was often criticized for making “message movies.” The League of Gentlemen is considered somewhat of an anomaly in his filmography due to its subject matter but that ignores some of the film’s mature themes including lots of homosexual innuendos (look for Oliver Reed in one of his early scene-stealing appearances playing an effeminate actor) and the suggestion that one of the gentlemen (Kieron Moore) is being blackmailed because he’s gay, which was considered a criminal offense in Britain until 1967. A year after making The League of Gentlemen, Dearden would explore these ideas further while directing the highly controversial and critically acclaimed Victim (1961) starring Dirk Bogarde. Much like Kieron Moore, Bograde’s character is also a homosexual man who becomes the target of malicious blackmailers.

LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, THE (1961)

Despite the movie’s adult humor, subtle antiwar message and unsentimental perspective on postwar Britain, this iconic caper can simply be enjoyed as a lighthearted farce with well-defined characters and a twisty plot full of unexpected surprises. It wasn’t the first film to use the timeworn blueprint popularized by American and French crime classics such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Bob le flambeur (1956), but it has a uniquely British sensibility and its influence is undeniable. The award-winning comic book author Alan Moore took inspiration from the film (and the original pulp novel it was based on) to create his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, which was adapted for the screen in 2003. The League of Gentlemen is also the name of a popular British comedy troupe consisting of Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith while generations of British filmmakers such as Peter Collinson (The Italian Job [1969]) and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels [1998]) have continued to successfully mine it for ideas.

You can currently catch The League of Gentlemen streaming on FilmStruck as part of their “How to Rob a Bank” theme discussed earlier this week by my fellow Streamliner, R. Emmet Sweeney.

Kimberly Lindbergs

6 Responses Equal Shares for All: The League of Gentlemen (1960)
Posted By Emgee : April 13, 2017 5:05 am

“they eagerly fall in line behind the colonel. ” To be fair, he does have some dirt on each of them to blackmail them with, but yes, they eventually see the positive side of the plan.

Wonderful movie and one of the best heist films ever made.
Thanks for the informative blog.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 13, 2017 12:18 pm

Emgee – Thanks for the comment! Blackmail suggests the colonel was strong-arming them into the heist but I think he was using their background info to make sure they wouldn’t go to the police if they didn’t participate. And of course, he was trying to point out their failings in that hope that it would encourage them to join him.

I should mention that the movie plays on TCM occasionally (which is where I first saw it) so if anyone reading this doesn’t have FilmStruck yet, look for it on TCM’s schedule.

Posted By DB McWeeberton : April 13, 2017 4:20 pm

Finally got to see this on the big screen at the Noir City festival in Seattle a couple months ago (on a double bill with The Ladykillers!). A movie I’m always happy to revisit, since it does such a good job fleshing out all the main characters.

It’s got a nice adult tone, one that wouldn’t have been allowable in an American film of the time. Ocean’s 11(Rat Pack version, also 1960) parallels it, but with a different result.

Posted By Doug : April 13, 2017 5:42 pm

I shouldn’t let this go for free, but here’s a triple digit million dollar movie idea: A caper movie starring the hot, young, most bankable A-list actors under 25. Those with built in fan bases which swoon at their every new film. Those guys.
Exciting caper/heist yarn, lots of quips and bigtime action…until the last ten minutes when we realize that the characters are all psychopaths as they slaughter every other character in the movie. Roll credits.
Take comfort in that I just edited myself.

Posted By kingrat : April 13, 2017 7:35 pm

Kimberly, thanks for writing about a most enjoyable film. To me, this film has very much the sensibility of its screenwriter, Bryan Forbes. Take a genre subject and treat it in a much more realistic way with three-dimensional characters–that could describe KING RAT, SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, and THE L-SHAPED ROOM just as it does THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN.

Although Forbes himself was heterosexual, he knew many gay men within the theatrical world, including his own agent, and unlike many straight men of his time he was sympathetic to their situation. His films often allude to homosexuality to the extent allowable at the time: KING RAT and THE L-SHAPED ROOM, for instance. The scene in LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN where Kieron Moore tries to hint at his feelings to a rather dim-witted lad is hilarious.

Forbes’ memoirs make very good reading, although they are hard to find in this country.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 14, 2017 2:39 am

I appreciate all the comments!

kingrat – I haven’t read Forbes’ memoirs so thanks for the recommendation. He was a fascinating multitalented man and I’m sure he’s got a lot of great stories to tell. I also haven’t read John Boland’s original novel so I have no idea how much Forbes’ added to the story but I’m curious to see how the film deviates from the source material. Must do some book buying soon!

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