This film was made in 1968 during a brief golden age for British cinema. Despite being directed by the acclaimed Jack Gold and starring many fine actors, it's strange that this film has been pretty much forgotten. It's not been issued on dvd, little information is available about it on the Internet, and it's been many years since I, and I guess most others, have even seen it. In fact I believe the last time it appeared on tv was the day I bought my first video recorder and I practised by recording this film. I managed to keep that recording for many years but it now appears to have been lost to time.
The film was originally a stage play and the film version does little to expand the story, but then again it didn't need to. It's largely filmed in real time, uses few sets, and is very talky. David Warner plays Terry Evans an ineffectual captain of an army detail in Germany that comprises both regulars and those on National Service. Their duty for the night is the unchallenging one of guarding the gun of the title.
Terry doesn’t mind this minor duty as tonight is to be his last night in Germany. Being a well-spoken and all-round decent chap, his connections have swung it for him to train to be an officer. He has already had a stint at college, but he failed as he lacks authority. But he's to get a second chance to become an officer, provided he has a quiet night and there are no loose ends.
This seemingly minor plotting point controls the main thrust of the story, because in his detail is O'Rourke played by Nicol Williamson. He is every commander's worst nightmare. O'Rourke is a fighting man whose interests in life are alcohol and thumping people. In times of war he's an ideal man to have in your squad, but not in peace time. Tonight is his 30th birthday, a time when he's determined to celebrate by getting blind drunk, having a punch-up, and being put on a charge. But having to deal with the administration of a charge will stop Terry returning to England and so he must try to keep him in line.
So the story becomes a character conflict between two men, one weak and well-meaning, the other a rebel and antagonistic. Terry tries to understand and reason with O'Rourke, and so prove that he can be a commander of men. O'Rourke is only interested in belitting Terry and so leaving him in no doubt of his utter contempt for him. That contempt ultimately creates a well-scripted role reversal.
At first you sympathise with Terry and his predicament of being in charge of an unreasonable man. But gradually you begin to appreciate O'Rourke's viewpoint and so your sympathies change. Like most 1960s British films it comes down to class. Terry has posh friends and so he will be a success no matter how useless he is. O'Rourke is an Irish working class man and so he is doomed to stay at the bottom no matter what he achieves. And despite his brawling, boozing exterior he has the soul of a poet. He has seen through to the rotten core of the British army's class system and he hates it.
The most famous scene neatly sums up the central conflict. Terry, at the end of his tether, asks O'Rourke why he hates him. O'Rourke glares at him. Then he walks over to the stove. He reaches in, pulls out a burning coal, and walks over to Terry with it held tightly in his fist. He stares into his eyes while clutching the steaming coal then deposits it on his desk. No words are needed. O'Rourke's hatred for posh British blokes is so strong he can control it only through pain and ultimately that will be his solution to the story's main dilemma.
The acting is exemplary from the two main leads as well as from numerous other well-known faces such as a young John Thaw. The only false note comes when the need to have a plotted resolution creates a melodramatic ending. The coal scene said it all but the story lets O'Rourke finally implode. Despite the ending, Nicol's character is up there with Jack Nicholson's McMurphy as being one of the great cinema rebels and it's sad therefore that he quit movies in the 1970s when there was so much more he could have achieved. But this movie stills stands as a great testament to quality acting and scripting.