UK / 87 minutes / bw / Angel, Eros Dir: Philip Leacock Pr: Daniel M. Angel Scr: Gilbert Holland (i.e., Donald Ogden Stewart) Story: Escapade (1953? play) by Roger MacDougall Cine: Eric Cross Cast: John Mills, Yvonne Mitchell, Alastair Sim, Jeremy Spenser, Andrew Ray, Marie Lohr, Colin Gordon, Nicky Edmett, Peter Asher, Christopher Ridley, Sean Barrett, Colin Freear, Kit Terrington, Mark Dignam, James Drake, Sonia Williams, John Rae, Richard Wattis.
Writer John Hampden (Mills) has made a career out of aggressively promoting world peace to the detriment of everything else in his life, including his wife Stella (Mitchell) and his three sons, whom he has sent off to Ferndale School, a boarding establishment run by the pompous but well meaning Dr. Skillingworth (Sim). We never see the eldest of the three, Icarus (oh, the symbolism, as we’ll find out), but we gather through the activities and dialogue of Maxie (Ray) and the youngest, Johnny (Asher), and their friends that Icarus is something of a charismatic leader in the school, an adventurous soul that even Dr. Skillingworth vastly admires . . . at the same time as disciplining him for the consequences of his behavior. Icarus has a new plan that involves the whole school—and neighboring schools as well.
Stella (Yvonne Mitchell) starts dividing up the records.
Stella has decided she needs a trial separation from her politically obsessed husband; they’re suffering from “marriage fatigue,” she decrees. Before she can actually leave, however, they’re called upon by Dr. Skillingworth, who has more or less been driven to despair by the latest activities of Icarus. (This doesn’t match with other statements he makes about the Hampden boys; it seems just to represent a bit of quick plot fudging to give an excuse for his presence at the Hampden home.) A phonecall arrives for Dr. Skillingworth: Maxie has used a homemade pistol to shoot a ball bearing into the hindquarters of unpopular literature teacher Sykes (Dignam).
Alastair Sim delivers a typical performance as headmaster Dr. Skillingworth.
The trio race to the school, where Maxie has been liberated by his fellows from the dormitory in which he’d been incarcerated by the teachers and, with Icarus and Johnny, has done a bunk. It’s clear there’s something bigger under way—that “at a signal” the other boys will light a hilltop bonfire to trigger a display of similar bonfires lit at different schools across the country. Sleazy-seeming Gazette journalist Deeson (Gordon) does better than the distracted parents and headmaster at getting the truth out of some of the boys, but even he doesn’t get much.
Seedy-seeming journalist Deeson (Colin Gordon) pumps the two Hampdens (John Mills, Yvonne Mitchell).
It emerges that for a long time Icarus has been accepting informal flying lessons from the father of his schoolfriend Potter (Ridley). Now, it seems, he has hijacked Potter père‘s locally hangared light airplane and set off on a flight in it with his younger brothers. A telegram arrives from, apparently, Luxembourg saying that the boys are there, but this proves to be just a decoy. The two younger ones are still in England while Icarus is aiming to fly solo to Vienna . . .
But what could his purpose be? Stella ascribes to him the motive of attempting to draw herself and John closer together again. On hearing this the boys’ paternal grandmother (Lohr) erupts, telling her that in a way she’s just as self-absorbed as her husband. This is a very telling moment in the narrative, because up to the point where the older Mrs. Hampden opens our eyes we’ve been entirely sympathetic toward the younger one, driven repeatedly as she has been against the rocky shore of her husband’s own self-absorption. Both partners in the marriage are starting to recognize a few home truths.
Maxie (Andrew Ray, left) and Johnny (Peter Asher) phone into let everyone know they’re safe and sound.
We do eventually learn what Icarus’s purpose is: to take a “sort of a petition”—in fact, a declaration signed by almost all the boys at Ferndale School—to the leaders of the great powers, whom Icarus believes can best be contacted in Vienna. The “borrowing” of the airplane and the solo flight are publicity stunts designed to direct international attention toward the content of that declaration. At an emotional stage of the movie the declaration’s read out to the Hampdens and the other adult principals (and to us, of course) by the schoolboy L.W. Daventry (Spenser):
We boys of Ferndale School do not wish to kill the children of any other school. If at 18 we ought to think it right to kill other men of 18, then why not at 16? Why not at 6? And if we feel it wrong at 16, how can it be otherwise two years later? No, when we grow up we do not think we will consent to kill people who have at one time been children of other schools. Men cannot always see the truths of a simple moral proposition. Perhaps it’s for children to lead the way.
The declaration closes with a Latin motto meaning, so Daventry informs us, “Nothing deters a good man from doing what is right.”
Escapade, based on a highly successful West End stage play, is usually billed as a comedy thriller, but that’s an abject misdescription. Although it has comedic moments and although the setup of a boys’ boarding school with its stiffly formal headmaster is a comedy staple—the headmaster being, to underscore this, played by one of the UK’s greatest comic actors—this isn’t a comedy and neither is it in any wise a thriller. Instead it’s a somewhat preachy moral fable focusing, first, upon the importance of giving our own human relationships priority if we hope to achieve our grander dreams, and, second, the obvious message in the declaration cited. The problem is that it tries to deliver these two messages rather clumsily. Mills’s character is just a caricature of the pacifist whose meetings to discuss how to achieve world peace always break up in acrimony; we don’t believe in him, and therefore it’s hard to take this moral seriously. And the declaration, read so self-consciously and portentously by Spenser’s character, his every word intended as a limpid pearl to treasure, seems today quite cringeworthy in its jejune naivety. (To be fair, in the 1950s, with WWII not such a distant memory, it may have seemed a more meaningful call from arms.)
Stella (Yvonne Mitchell) and John (John Mills) start facing up totheir own shortcomings.
As noted, Mills’s character is essentially a stereotype—or at least that’s the way he plays the part—while Sim delivers his standard persona, although at times letting a little unwonted steel and seriousness show through. The boys, likewise, aren’t given a whole lot to work with. Mitchell’s character is far more interesting and three-dimensional; although this is what you’d expect from an actress of Mitchell’s caliber, it’s written into the screenplay too. And Gordon’s character, the seedy journalist, proves to have unexpected depths as well.
There are lots of links among the cast and crew to other aspects of UK popular culture. The soundtrack was composed by Bruce Montgomery, better known to readers of crime fiction as the author of the Gervase Fen detective novels, Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop (1946) is probably the most famous of these. Peter Asher, here seen as the small child Johnny, is the elder brother of Jane Asher; in later years he’d be one half of the duo Peter & Gordon, best known for the international hit “World Without Love,” and he still works in the music business. Andrew Ray was a son of the hugely popular stage, screen and especially radio comedian Ted Ray, whose show Ray’s a Laugh enlivened many a UK Sunday lunchtime. The comic actor Richard Wattis has a small uncredited role here as one of the people driven away from John Hampden’s pacifist group by Hampden’s belligerence; Wattis would become best known for appearances in the St. Trinian’s movies and such gems as Carry On Spying (1964). Finally, on a personal note, Dignam and his wife Virginia for many years rented a room in their home to a very dear friend of mine!
Escapade is very much a period piece, and as such merits watching; also, of course, any chance to see Yvonne Mitchell at the top of her game is worth grabbing—she had a tremendous ability to convey mood with just a glance and, so far as the constraints of the screenplay will allow, she deploys that ability to great effect here.
This is a contribution toward the Past Offences 1955 signup.