You may have thrilled to Alan Moore's cross-over capers and laughed at the dark doing in Royston Vasey, but now meet the movie where they pilfered their monkers from!
It's 1960 and London is still suffering the gloom of the the post war period and is still years away from transforming its colourful swinging late '60s self. And across the capital, a band of ex-military men who have strayed from the straight and narrow each recieve a mysterious invitation...
The League of Gentlemen is a quintessential British heist/caper movie which delivers plenty of thrills and a good many laughs along the way. It's one of those movies which will pertpetually enjoys a Sunday afternoon slot on TV. Indeed it was in such a slot, where I first encountered it one rainy afternoon many moons ago. Naturally this film with it's intriguing tale of a motely crew of military men attempting to outfox the forces of law and order made a big impression at the time - for a growing lad a film that delivered a cops and robbers yarn where the robbers were soldiers was a dream ticket.
And I'm pleased to say that the movie still holds up today. But interestingly watching it now reveals The League of Gentlemen to have a good deal more going on than just crime capers. There's a very strong social commentary unpinning the hijinx of which my younger self was completely unaware.
To begin with one of the characters Captain Stevens (played by Kieron Moore) is obviously gay and is being being blackmailed. At this time homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and such blackmail was all too common. Nor is Stevens alone, another of gang, Captain "Padre" Mycroft (Roger Livesey) has "gross indecency in a public place" on his CV which maybe a reference to cottaging, and Nigel Patrick's debonair but disgraced Major Peter Race, who refers to other chaps as 'old darling' and has been living at YMCA, may well be gay also.
What's remarkable though is the matter of fact way the film deals with this; it offers no moral judgements and furthermore these characters are presented sympathetically as likeable fellows and played with the usual limp wristed camp and effeminacy that was typical in this period. (Interestingly the film does feature this queer stereotype in one scene which features an early and uncredited appearance by a young Oliver Reed who camps it up to the nines).
Also it is worth noting the reasons why Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) puts together the plan for the heist. Here is a man who had served his country in war-time only to find the post-war years have left him unvalued and disillustioned about the land and the society he fought for. In many ways, the gang he assembles, with their diverse reasons for leaving the straight and narrow, shines a spotlight into the shadows of 1950s British society.
It is such elements coupled with a cracking story and a brilliant ensemble cast that really elevate The League of Gentlemen. It wonderfully evokes it's time and delivers an exciting adventure with humour and suspense. There are some marvellous comic scenes and director Basil Dearden wisely keeps us in the dark as to what the plan for the robbery actually is until it occurs on screen. It's a textbook example of how to mix humour and action and obviously influenced a great many later works, such as the The Italian Job.
In short, it's a classic slice of British cinema, packed with wit and intelligence and well worth checking out.
JIM MOON, 15th January 2009