The Shooting Party
Directed by Alan Bridges
I recently re-watched The Shooting Party after about a 20-year gap. I’ve now seen it about four times altogether. I’m glad to say this is not one of those cases where the last time I’ve seen something was when I was young and the movie just doesn’t hold up anymore. If anything, I may like it more. I see new things in it as a middle-aged person, a sure sign of a film built to last.
Now with Downton Abbey the apparent standard for how the film/tv universe approaches how the English upper class deals with their servants and vice versa, you may want to know how The Shooting Party stacks up. To me, five minutes of The Shooting Party tells me more about these two classes in the early twentieth century than ten hours of Downton, and I like Downton a lot, never miss it. This is because Julian Fellowes isn’t nearly in the same league as Isabel Colegate, the author of the novel The Shooting Party is based on. (To be fair, Fellowes would probably be the first to agree with the last sentence.)
Fall 1913. An aristocratic party assembles at the estate of English aristocrat Sir Randolph Nettleby (James Mason). They talk, gossip, argue, play, dine and conduct affairs. And the men shoot birds every day. This is the old order about to crumble. Most of these people are emotionally repressed, cold, frustrated. Some are arrogant, racist, oblivious to any but their social sphere. Some are likeable. All are believably human.
A young boy spends much of the story looking for his missing pet duck, terrified that someone will shoot it for sport. We can see that he’s already being prepped for an adult life where he’ll shoot birds for sport and not give a thought to their pain. He’ll probably grow into such a man. Or will he? Like him, the women in the gathering express anger at the shooting, but almost all of the men dismiss their concerns. The pointlessness of bird-shooting subtly presages the pointlessness of shooting men which will happen in France the next year. But we know the men, almost without exception, will not question the carnage now or the infinitely greater carnage later.
John Gielgud plays Cornelius Cardew, a local pacifist who wanders around the country village trying and failing to win people over to his views, which of course are pro-bird. He blithely walks right in front of a row of shooting men. Sir Randolph confronts him but treats him with respect. The two quickly become familiar, and Cardew recommends his tract publisher to Sir Randolph, who has been wanting to publish a leaflet on the responsibilities of the landed gentry. Cardew says a sympathetic local man “of anarchistic views” gives him “good rates.” Surely this will be an appropriate publisher. Gielgud’s performance, as usual, is priceless-touching, sympathetic, finely nuanced, side-splitting.
Edward Fox’s Lord Hartlip is an uber-aristo, extremely arrogant, icy, mean. But there’s a scene where he beautifully plays a piece on a piano when he hopes no one is listening. This is one of many cases where, just as you’re deciding that a character is this type of person, the script (expertly adapted by Julian Bond) starts throwing you curves and you see that this figure is contradictory, well-rounded, surprising.
In all scenes the color is a bit bleached but not overmuch. This is one period piece that comes pre-aged. The music also well conveys the fragility and loss of the proceedings.
In the near-final scene, Lord Hartlip, in an action all but him will condemn as unsportsmanlike, desperately aims his rifle low so that he can up his score. By doing this, he accidentally shoots the gamekeeper Harker (Gordon Jackson, of Downton template Upstairs, Downstairs fame). Hartlip doesn’t even apologize-or talk to-the man, but Sir Randolph, his employer, holds him in his arms and prays with him. Everyone knows the man only has minutes to live. When Mason & Co. did the scene, a cast member recounted, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Audiences get misty too. Just before he expires, Harker croaks, “God save the British Empire.” You believe he believes it, and you almost believe it yourself, so convincingly is it played. Tom Harker, an avowed socialist and harsh critic of the upper classes, nevertheless affirms the basic faith of the land. Randolph’s decentness and even love speaks well of him; he is, after all, the only character who bemoans the uncaring decadence of his class. His action here shows how he lives out his responsibility in the great chain of class. In contrast to this, after Harker’s death, another toff who can’t understand why anyone’s worked up, says, “He was only a peasant.” Which makes his intended love appalled and say politely but firmly that she won’t meet him again as agreed.
The film ends with the shooting party walking over a field, heading back to the estate. Superimposed are the obits of most of the male characters, who will die (have died) in WWI in the following years. A narrator says that perhaps the ridiculous Cardew will have the last laugh.
This is not a depressing film, but it is partly a sad one, poignant and finely detailed far more than most. You feel the pleasure of a sadness that recognizes the loss of decaying ideals, charm, foolishness, ugliness, obliviousness. You care about these people, whether you like them or not, or whether you’re not sure what you think about them. That’s rare magic, and there’s some justice in the fact that the movie has become one of the most-praised British films ever, highly English and completely universal.
Fiction Department/North Avondale Library