“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929
Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work.
The year before he directed the all-star ensemble cast of League of Gentlemen, Dearden made Sapphire, a police procedural about a couple of cops trying to solve a murder. In doing so, they stumble into the middle of the hyper-charged racial tension boiling to the surface in London. In that film, the social message is front and center, becomes the very essence of the plot, and the viewer is not granted the emotional reprieve of forays into comedy. With League of Gentlemen, Dearden’s intent is no less political, but the message of the film—about the treatment of veterans after their service in a war and the difficulty combat veterans have readjusting to civilian life—is couched in the language of a heist film, with ample touches of humor to lighten what could be a much heavier film (for example, Dead Presidents, a couple of decades later).
A year after League of Gentlemen, Dearden directed another controversial film about a touchy social issue. 1961’s Victim starred Dirk Bogarde as a closeted gay lawyer who takes on a blackmail ring preying on other gay men (homosexuality being a crime punishable by imprisonment at the time). Risking exposure, Bogarde decides to unmask the blackmailers. The film is often regarded as the spark that started a gay rights movement in the UK, which eventually led to the legalization of homosexuality in the UK.
Which makes it odd to me that so many critics dismiss Dearden’s films as empty, commercial, and bureaucratic. Not everything he made dwelled on social topics; The Assassination Bureau is really nothing more than a jaunty romp (albeit one with Oliver Reed blowing up a lot of people), but Dearden’s films often strike that sweet spot between commercially viable and socially challenging.
League of Gentlemen begins with a scene that seems like it should have come from a German krimi film. A well-dressed man emerges from a manhole onto a steamy London street and then hops into a waiting Rolls Royce. He drives himself home and sets about the task of writing seven letters. Each of these he places in a parcel alongside an American potboiler titled The Golden Fleece, ten half-£5-notes, and an invitation to lunch at the Cafe Royal (a restaurant established at 68 Regent Street in London’s Piccadilly by a Frenchman fleeing his bills in 1865; it was renown as having one of the best wine cellars in all of England. Sadly, it closed in 2008 and was converted into a hotel).
This man, we learn, is Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins, Oh! What a Lovely War, Theatre of Blood, The Lodger, The Bridge on the River Kwai…so on and so forth), a decorated veteran of the British army who was unceremoniously dumped into retirement—”Made redundant.” The parcels are delivered to similarly discharged veterans, though unlike Hyde, each of them left the armed forces under some cloud of disrepute and have arrived at undesirable, sometimes criminal stations in life. Hyde’s pitch to them is to use their military experience to pull off a bank robbery. Not like common thieves, mind you, but with the planning and precision of accomplished soldiers. At the end of it, they will all be £100,000 richer.
For most heist movie fans, the important thing isn’t the crime itself; it’s the scenes of planning and, even more important, assembling the crew. Much of League of Gentlemen‘s run-time shows us the lives of the conspirators. This crew is a who’s who of British players, including Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesey, Terence Alexander, Bryan Forbes, Kieron Moore, Norman Bird, and Richard “I brought dinosaurs back to life” Attenborough. Each man brings a specific set of skills to the heist, as well as being desperate enough to say yes to the idea of a bank robbery based almost entirely on the plot of a middling pulp novel (in the book on which this movie is based, author John Boland uses the title of a real crime novel, Lionel White’s Clean Break, itself the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, The Killing).
Then there’s the heist-before-the-heist. Guns, other than hunting rifles, are difficult to obtain in England, so Hyde decides the weapons they need must first be stolen from a nearby military base—allowing them not only to arm themselves with state-of-the-art gear, but also to the military that slighted them all. This plan is based on an actual occurrence. In 1954, the Irish Republican Army launched two raids on English military bases to capture weapons and ammunition. In both cases, one in June at Armagh and the second in October at Omagh (oh, those Irish names), the IRA infiltrated the bases disguised as British soldiers and took advantage of on-base distractions, such as dances, to obscure their chicanery.
This wasn’t the first time the IRA equipped themselves by robbing their British enemies. In December of 1939, they mounted what became known as the Christmas Raid, taking advantage of lax security and distractions caused by base festivities. The version that appears in League of Gentlemen is an amalgamation of the 1954 raids, and like those—and like every single movie heist ever that has every move planned down to the last detail—it doesn’t go off without a few hitches to heighten the suspense.
Having armed themselves, Hyde and the lads set about the bigger of their schemes, though once again in classic heist film form, the main heist only takes up a few minutes of the film’s time. It is, however, exceptionally well done, with the crew donning intimidating gas masks (conjuring images of London during the Blitz) and firing off their purloined machine guns while smoke bombing the entire bank so that they make off with the loot without actually seriously harming anyone. And as with just about every heist in heist film history, they took care of every single detail… except one.
If this plot about a group of soldiers getting together to pull off a robbery with military precision sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been used several times since then. Most famously, with a few tweaks, more humor (or less British humor I suppose), and more “hey babe” cocktail culture, League of Gentleman shares a plot with the American film Ocean’s Eleven, also released in 1960 and starring a similarly brawny list of who’s who that included just about every member of the Rat Pack. And decades after Ocean’s Eleven (but before the remake of Ocean’s Eleven), the idea of a group of army buddies coming together for one big heist was revived and retooled, becoming Dead Presidents, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes in 1995.
There is little political about Ocean’s Eleven. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) and his crew all seem pretty well off. They decide to pull a heist mostly as a lark and because why the hell not? The politics in League of Gentlemen are more substantial, but I’d hardly call them substantial, especially compared to other Dearden films like Sapphire and Victim or the very politically-charged Dead Presidents. There is something, however, about the way a country uses up its military men then, when their time is done, tosses them back into society with little preparation and often with little to support them. Making this point however, is not the primary focus. League of Gentlemen is more interested in being a breezy, humorous little thriller.
Dead Presidents is the most overtly political of the three. The veterans are all young black men who served in Vietnam and returned home to shattered communities, racism, and drugs. In each case, we can see a set of motivations decreed by class and circumstance. For the cats in Ocean’s Eleven, it’s just a way to amuse themselves. For the League of Gentlemen, the motivation is a mixture of revenge against the system and a desire to improve one’s station in life. For the crew in Dead Presidents, the motivation is a combination of desperation, anger, hopelessness, and in the case of black rights activist Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), political action.
In Ocean’s Eleven, they are all old Army buddies, but there’s not much thought given to that beyond being an excuse for them to know each other and be able to come up with plans that require Sinatra to read off a lot of timetables. In League of Gentlemen, more attention is paid to the military careers of each of the “gentlemen” (a term applied, in some cases, ironically). It takes on an almost Dirty Dozen style explanation of each man and the trouble in which he found himself (and in fact, at its core, Dirty Dozen is sort of a heist movie that seems influenced by League of Gentlemen). But as to showing us the service of each man, that is not the aim of the film. Dead Presidents is structured as much like a “coming-of-age” film as it is a heist film, and it spends a considerable amount of time showing us the childhood of the main character and his gruesome combat experiences in Vietnam. Although more overtly political and bleaker, Dead Presidents really is the most like League of Gentlemen, even if League‘s melancholy is buried under the stolid veneer of dry British humor.
Originally envisioned as a Hollywood film starring Cary Grant and David Niven, producer Carl Foreman was unable to obtain the services of Grant (busy making North By Northwest and Operation Petticoat), which derailed the project entirely. The rights to the script by Bryan Forbes were then procured by Basil Dearden, who had just opened his own production company, Allied Film Makers, along with Forbes, Richard Attenborough, Guy Green, Jack Hawkins, and producer Michael Relph. They were each unhappy with the current system and difficulty filmmakers faced getting financing and so decided to give it a go themselves. League of Gentlemen, after being tweaked to make it more British, was the first film the new partnership produced. It was the perfect project…this new crew of friends and professional associates…going against the system, coming together…to make a film about a crew of friends and associates going against the system.
It was a good gamble. League of Gentlemen was one of the top grossing British films of 1960. Ghe scars of the Second World War were still relatively fresh in the minds of the British public. Many of veterans were entering middle age, and a goodly many of them had, like the rascals of League of Gentlemen, found it difficult to re-acclimate to civilian life and adjust to a life of marriage, mundane jobs, dull apartments and houses (which leads me to image what The Best Years of Our Lives would have been like with a heist). Their midlife crises reminded them that, just fifteen years ago, they’d been duking it out with Hitler, sharing cigarettes with comrades on the front, and defending British air space from the Luftwaffe’s blitz. How do you go from that to saying “yes, sir” to some bank manager?
And though League of Gentlemen deals with the male wartime experience, let’s not forget that for many women the war was equally harrowing and heroic, and the return to civilian life just as jarring. How do you ask a woman who was helping to break the Enigma code, serving as a front line nurse, or being parachuted behind enemy lines as a spy for the SOE to come home and be content with a life of changing diapers and caring for a husband?
The thieves of League of Gentlemen struck a chord with many viewers who were finding peaceful life difficult, who looked at post-war England and thought that, though no one wanted a war back, something vital and adventurous had been lost. What’s more, many felt that the men and women who fought this epic struggle had been tossed back after the war with no concern for their well-being or respect for what they’d sacrificed. It remains an issue to this day, and always has been. Politicians who blithely send people off to war are more than happy to screw those same people when they return, robbing them of treatment and benefits earned. Which is part of the reason League of Gentlemen seems to have aged so little. The accents might have changed, the war might be different, but the core that inspires Hyde to mount this complicated heist remains.
Of course, it’s also a fun movie, which helps. You get some of the best the British film industry had to offer doing their best. After all, it was their own production company. Almost everyone with a main role in the film also had a stake in Allied Film Makers. That the script spends so much time telling the stories of each of the men makes them relatable, which makes the complex double-heist that much more tense. None of the robbers is a perfect human. They are robbers, after all, and most were dismissed from the army for some criminal indiscretion. “You’re all crooks, aren’t you?” asks Hyde of his motley crew, “Of one kind or another.” Despite their faults, however, and their occasional distrust and personal quirks, the film convinces you to like them. Jaunty British can-do attitude keep the politics from becoming oppressive.
With so many British pros executing their craft on-screen, one can almost forget Basil Dearden behind the camera. His direction is not flashy, but it more than gets the job done. The two heists are expertly shot and edited. In the case of the raid on the arms depot, cutting between the hoax being perpetrated to facilitate the actual theft, with all its complicated moving parts, lends the scene a great air of tension. The direction of the bank heist is different, but no less effective. Shot quickly, with a cacophony of noise and movement and confusion, it’s a breath-taking sequence, even if you’re wearing a gas mask. Although League of Gentlemen is a largely light-hearted and spirited affair, Dearden knows how and when to ratchet up the stakes.
It’s not an action packed film; only the final heist has anything akin to action, the raid on the military base being played more for tension than thrills. But like I said, a good heist film is rarely about the heist itself. It’s about everything leading up to (and sometimes happening after) the heist. In that regard, there’s a reason the template set by League of Gentlemen has been used by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Hughes Brothers. A group of inspired British film makers making their own movie, on their own terms, with a defiant twinkle in their collective eye makes for a very engaging caper. Unfortunately for Allied Film Makers, this would prove to be their one and only big hit. Subsequent films produced by the partnership did not generate the same sort of success, and the group went under in fairly short order (just like what happens in most heist films). But if the movie you leave behind as a testament to your vision is League of Gentlemen, then you’ve done very well indeed.