Saturday, 14 February 2015

Anachronism in the UK…The Breaking of Bumbo (1970)

The promise of this film far outweighs its delivery… it looks like it should be a smart satire on the British class system, military priviledge and the struggle for a new enlightenment but it ends up being just a bit irritating. Just about the only sympathetic characters are the “innocent” guardsmen played by the likes of Warren Clarke whilst pretty much every major character has only unresolved arguments to make or, in the case of “Bumbo” is a near vacuum – with no real substance or impact… you just don’t care that much.

Warwick, Fox and Williams
Bumbo (Richard Warwick) arrives with the Household Guards with the appearance of a slight outsider, there fully on merit but without the “natural” bearing of his mate, Billy (Jeremy Child), who whilst being part of “The Club” simply hasn’t achieved the grades. But we’re never quite clear who Bumbo is or what he really wants but then neither is he.

He clearly wants the beautiful Susie (Joanna Lumley who is very fetching in a red wig) if only for one thing, even though he convinces himself it’s also about her principles – a revolt for the sake of it with no specific agenda as far as I could see. Indeed, when at one point one of the working class guardsmen praises her bravery she smiles a childish grin as if all she’s really after is approval.

Take that, The Man!
But when Bumbo first encounters Susie and her friend Jock (a John Bird of no fixed accent… at least here) they are staging a protest at a society function in a wax-works and appear amusing and brazen. They throw the debs and young officers into confusion as they spout standard issue anarchy and melt the faces of waxwork Winnie, Napoleon and other notables.

Jock protests too much, methinks...
These anti-establishment stance shock tactics appear to Bumbo’s conflicted sense of honour, besides, Susie’s leather trousers are cut so precisely… he follows her home even though his leg gets a burn from Jock’s blazing paint stripper of truth.
Silk bandages for the injured soldier
Back in Susie’s apartment the three talk in psychedelic shorthand about the need to break free but Jack is so obviously a rebel without coherence talking in circular logic that never alights convincingly on any topic. Susie is genuine but what she wants is more to do with what she wants… and, at this moment that is Bumbo.

That's about it, Lumley lovers..
Jock leaves leaving Bumbo and Susie to complete a night of further discussion… it is here that some online commentators find most fault as a revealing sequence of Miss Lumley has been excised. Whilst I can’t pretend that that isn’t disappointing in of itself, it may also have helped to establish clearer motivations for both her and Bumbo.

As it is, Bumbo becomes converted to their cause and after sitting around debating the need for action turns up in support of whatever it is they’re for at a march earning the displeasure of his commander back at the barracks.

Bumbo makes the news at a march
Next Bumbo is persuaded to infiltrate the rugby team and to persuade the troops to support his in a grand gesture on the parade ground: they will all, as one, demonstrate their independence from the crushing discipline of the army mindset.

In fairness to Bumbo and to writer, director Andrew Sinclair who was a former Coldstream Guards officer and who also wrote the original book in 1959, the character expresses from the outset his wish to retain his personality: he doesn’t want to be processed.

Yet, after finding out that Susie has very quickly progressed beyond the sexual-interest stage of “love” to the platonic version which allows her to sleep with other partners… Bumbo feels more than a little let down. So does Susie who can’t understand his possessiveness: she still loves him but not in the way he wants… not in “that” way.

In spite of this Bumbo proceeds with his plan… can he succeed in launching a revolution from within? Will parade be the Battleship Potemkin helping to inspire wider social change or will he just end up making a fool of himself and falling back into his pre-ordained slot in upper class society?

Dusty verdict: I can easily understand why this film had only a very limited release at the time… it doesn’t fully explain itself and ends up being a bit confused. It does attempt to grasp at deeper meaning and the juxtaposition of fans at a heated Stamford Bridge with the cold discipline of the Guards shows what the army is really there for.

Bumbo explains to Billy that he’ll be just like his forebears – nothing will change even when the world has moved on the military mind is geared towards the maintenance of tradition. Yet Bumbo, broken though he may be, still starts to relish the lucky break that eventually comes his way: marriage to Sheila (Natasha Pyne) and her wealth and her privilege… Poor man to be so trapped.

There are good performances tucked away on the undercard… from Edward Fox as a maniacal officer Horwood and young Simon Williams as Crutcher. There are also a striking cameo from the recently-departed Warren Clarke as Guardsmen Andrews whilst Anouska Hempel passes by as a highly-convincing debutante.

Absolutely fabulous
Of the leads Joanna is the easy winner with an emotional agility and subtle comic touch that eludes the others and which flies someway above the quality of the material. Then, as they say in soccer, class will out and she has it.

There are also some lovely shots of period London – the docks near St Paul (long since demolished), the West End and Chelsea FC before they got their Russian billions and were a community club representing South West London pride...

You can buy Bumbo from Amazon or Movie Mail if you miss the sixties and like Joanna Lumley you can't really go wrong.

Richard Warwick and Anouska Hempel
The warehouses of St Paul's

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