I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
In 1953, in London, England, a young man named Derek Bentley was hanged for the crime of being an accomplice in the murder of a policeman. Bentley had an IQ pf 66 and a mental age of 11. His death sentence was biased not on what he did (the actual shooting was done by his 16-year-old partner, Chris Craig), but on five ambiguous words he uttered ten minutes before PC Miles was gunned down: “Let him have it, Chris!” To the officers who later quoted those words at the trial, they meant, “Shoot him, Chris!” and proved Derek to be the instigator of the fatal 20-minute shoot-out which followed. This despite the fact that Derek himself carried no gun and made no attempt to resist arrest. For Derek’s family and their many supporters, those same words meant “Let the officer have the gun, Chris!” A terrible ambiguity on which to weigh a life. It is unlikely that Derek Bentley himself ever fully understood the tragedy in which he played the central role. Until their deaths in the ‘70s, his parents sought to correct what they saw as a horrible miscarriage of justice; Bentley’s sister, Iris, carries on their struggle to this day. The case almost certainly contributed to Britain’s eventual abolition of the death penalty.
Derek Bentley’s story is retold in Let Him Have It (1991), a superbly-crafted, moving film by Peter Medak. Let Him Have It is not simply an attack on the British justice system or the idea of capital punishment. This despite the fact that its courtroom scenes are unflattering, the hanging is quick and brutal, and the young man who dies is executed by a system that cannot distinguish criminal intent from an inability to choose one’s friends. Unlike another excellent, fact-based crime film, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (which actually resulted in the retrial and exoneration of a man wrongly imprisoned for killing a Dallas policeman in 1976), Peter Medak’s main focus is on the characters rather than the case. We are not so much outraged by injustice as we are touched by the love and affection within Derek’s family. The strongest scenes in this film are the gentlest ones; particularly those between Derek (Christopher Eccleston) and his sister (Clare Holman) and parents (Tom Courtenay & Eileen Atkins). We can even empathize with Chris Craig’s (Paul Reynolds) desperate desire to replace his nonexistent family and social life with the inflated bravado of American movie gangsters and his own, largely impotent, criminal “gang.” Medak gets excellent performances both from veteran actors Courtney and Atkins, and newcomers Eccleston, Holman, and Reynolds.
Take away the courtroom scenes at the end, take away Derek’s family’s desperate race against death through the media, the Judiciary, and the British Parliament, and Let Him Have It would still stand as a film worth watching solely for its affecting portrait of a family struggling to encourage one member’s escape from a debilitating, self-imposed isolation, while simultaneously shielding him from dangers he cannot see or comprehend. As much as Derek’s execution may move us to anger, the greater tragedy is that of a loving family’s inability to protect its most vulnerable member. Love is not always enough. Watching this movie reminded me of the title of a recent novel by Canadian writer David Adams Richards: For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. Every society has its share of the wounded and vulnerable; every society has its share of the hunters. These days, masked under rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, corporate downsizing, global competitiveness, self-reliance, free markets, and reduced government, the hunters have become bolder.
Let Him Have It is also a fine lesson on the good old days that never were. For those who remember only schools that taught the basics and within which violence and anti-social behavior were non-issues, Medak gives us a classroom scene from 1952 where the favorite activity when the headmaster’s not around is trading handguns, ammunition, and black-market rationing coupons. Nor is the headmaster particularly surprised when he discovers what is going on. One of the less heroic legacies of the Second World War must have been an incredible surfeit of arms. Unemployment, easy access to guns, a lucrative smuggling trade, media which sensationalized the lives of anti-social outlaws: I’m describing post-war Britain, but is there something familiar about this picture? The Lone Ranger may have lived in the thrilling days of yesteryear, Derek Bentley and his family did not.
As almost invariably seems to be the case with British films, the period detail is superb. No one recreates history on screen better than the Brits. I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it again. It’s not a question of just finding the right hairstyles, clothes, cars, knickknacks, etc. The trick is putting it all together so that the final result doesn’t look like a newly-minted museum showcase. Thanks to the work of marvelously-trained art directors, cinematographers, and production & costume designers, British film sets look as if the actors had spent their lives in them. Someone should just give the entire British film industry a Lifetime Achievement Award for opening the past to us in ways that no one else has.
A final note for those who enjoy British cinema. I’d like to recommend two other films which involved various members of the production team which was responsible for Let Him Have It. The first is The Krays (1990), Peter Medak’s portrait of the twin brothers who ran London’s underworld during the 60’s. The second is the black comedy Withnail & I (1987), also set in the 60’s, and as lethal as The Krays.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
This is another of the films that I reviewed over 20 years ago that I seem to have forgotten completely. But on a second viewing it continues to work for me on at least two levels. Like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), Let Him Have It reaffirms the ability of the cinema to help restore justice where it may have been denied. Medak’s film was one more step in Derek’s family 45-year campaign to overturn his murder conviction. It was a quest for justice that outlived his parents, and his sister, Iris, finally ending when Iris’s daughter Maria, born 10 years after Derek’s execution, saw the Court of Appeals quash the conviction in July of 1998. For all of the exposure we’ve had to Hatfield-McCoy-style intergenerational feuds in popular media, how many intergenerational quests for justice have we seen? The Bentley family’s undying love for their doomed son/brother/uncle is worth a film in its own right. Theirs is the power of faith in its purest manifestation, a crusade that uplifts rather than horrifies.
The movie also continues to work as yet another example of flawless British period filmmaking, with superb acting and utterly convincing production design (Michael Pickwoad) and costume design (Pam Tait). The long street of red brick row houses on which the Bengley’s live is one of the film’s most memorable images, capturing both a sense of order and a sense of straightened lives. Michael Pickwoad, who died this year (2018), went on to work on 62 episodes of Doctor Who and dozens of other films & TV shows. Tait’s first screen credit was as assistant costume designer for Sid and Nancy (1986). I was also impressed by Michael Kamen’s low-keyed musical score, much different from the work he’d later do on Hollywood blockbusters such as the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon films. Kamen probably had one of the most eclectic resumes of any major film composer—including co-writing songs with Bryan Adams! Director Peter Medak, who made his first film in 1965, has had a career that now spans more than half a century. Christopher Eccleston has had a fine career as an actor, including 13 appearances as Doctor Who. Most of Clare Holman’s work has been on television, principally as Dr. Laura Hobson in 42 episodes of Inspector Lewis. Tom Courtenay’s career now spans six decades, with two Oscar nominations. Eileen Atkins has 98 acting credits on the Imdb, including 31 appearances as Ruth Ellingham in the Doc Martin TV series.
The story of Christopher Craig, who was 16 when he was convicted along with Derek Bentley, makes for an object lesson in the dangerously seductive power of cinema. For an illiterate, unemployed young man in early 1950s London, a steady diet of American gangster films like James Cagney’s White Heat wasn’t exactly a stabilizing influence. For Craig, a movie such Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) would have been an inspiration rather than an object lesson. Craig was released after 10 years in prison, married shortly thereafter, and became a plumber. He issued a statement when Bentley’s pardon was granted, and apologized to both Bentley’s family and the family of PC Miles for his actions.
Sometimes we lose track of how far we’ve come. As of 2018, 170 countries have either abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium on its use. A mere four countries accounted for 84% of official executions in 2017. As graphically shown in Let Him Have It, it would now be inconceivable that the draft board of a Western nation would insist on “verifying” a young person’s medical condition by artificially inducing epilepsy. It’s unbelievable that even the recent horrors of the Second World War didn’t serve to put an immediate stop to the casual cruelties inflicted by societies on some of their most vulnerable citizens.
Out here in British Columbia, we have our own powerful story of crime and redemption, one which has been written down and commented upon, and even put on film in the form of a CBC documentary, The Poet and the Bandit (1999) and an NFB documentary, Inside Time (2007). Stephen Reid, who died in 2018, and who went from youthful bank robber to respected author and then back to bank robber, had been eloquent in trying to come to terms with the roller coaster life he’d led. That he was able to write his own story earned him praise from some quarters, and outrage from others. He married poet Susan Musgrave while serving his first prison term in 1986, started a family and a career as a writer, and then was sentenced to a second, 18-year prison term in 1999. Musgrave stood by him during all that time. Reid died a month before he and Musgrave were scheduled to appear together at Nelson, B.C.’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival.