This film is held by the BFI (ID: 31573).


A British regiment stationed in a newly independent African state is preparing to celebrate the Queen's birthday when Colonel Deal is ordered to hand over command to the African Captain Abraham pending the result of political agitation. Deal leaves for H.Q. confining all British personnel to quarters. The veteran R.S.M., Lauderdale, is in charge of the Mess, stranded travellers and Miss Barker-Wise, a visiting Labour M.P. from London. Lieutenant Boniface, Miss Barker-Wise's former protegée, assumes rebel command in the name of the new government. Abraham escapes, wounded, and is granted asylum by Lauderdale who prepares to defend the Mess against Boniface and sabotages his guns. Deal arrives confirming the new regime and Lauderdale is ignominiously ordered to leave the country by Boniface. Shattered by this seeming injustice he allows himself one act of lèse majesté before preparing to obey orders again.



Filmed in black and white in England, mainly at Pinewood Studios, Guns at Batasi does not offer the characteristic spectacle of the empire genre — expansive landscapes in Technicolor. It offers adventure, but British soldiers are pinned down in barracks for most of the film, while the action that Lauderdale eventually takes is to move only a few yards from the mess. As one of the first films set in a post-independence former British colony, the diminution of territory and action suggests a main theme of the film: the impact of loss of imperial power. The film is dedicated to the Warrant Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers of the British army.

In the 1950s, films about colonial wars in Malaya and Kenya had portrayed an empire that was increasingly besieged, its end in sight. The pace of decolonisation in Africa accelerated in the 1960s after Harold Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ speech. Before the 1960s Ghana was the only British colony in Africa to gain independence and join the Commonwealth. Between 1960 and the year that Guns at Batasi was released — 1964 — a further eight British colonies in Africa gained independence: Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Zanzibar, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia. 

Britain’s dwindling international status was a prominent theme of the satire boom of the 1960s. Codes of duty and honour associated with imperial masculinity became the target of considerable levity across a range of media, and imperial figures were often identified as passé(see Ward 2001: 91-110; see also Webster 2005, ch. 7). Guns at Batasitreats them differently — the Manchester Guardian described it as ‘an end-of-empire-but-old-virtues-not-quite-outmoded drama’ (23 November 1964). It is Lauderdale who represents such ‘old virtues’. He is, in part, a comic figure — a boring and repetitive raconteur of army stories whose men mimic him behind his back and who snores loudly when he sleeps. But as the action of the film develops he displays considerable leadership, authority and courage. Within the plot, the British government repudiates his views and actions, but the film endorses them, particularly through his conflict with Miss Barker-Wise. Richard Attenborough’s performance as Lauderdale was widely praised by reviewers in Britain and America (see for example Manchester Guardian 25 September 1964 or New York Times, 17 November 1964).

Decolonisation never became a prominent issue in British domestic politics. However for white settler communities in British colonies it was strongly contested, notably through Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1965. The film’s perspective draws on views that were characteristic of many white settlers in African colonies like Kenya and Rhodesia. Its portrayal of Miss Barker-Wise suggests a common verdict in white settler communities on contemporary Britain and its politicians: they betray the values of empire and, far from supporting a racial community of Britons, are enthusiasts for granting independence to Africans, putting at risk the livelihoods — even the lives — of whites. When Boniface taunts Lauderdale with his power to train guns on the mess, the film echoes another common view — black Africans are getting the upper hand, and British politicians do nothing to stop them. When Lauderdale describes Miss Barker-Wise’s idea of Africa as ‘smarmy, silly, bloody half-baked’ and reminds her that ‘You’re not in Parliament now, this isn’t England and I know more about these people than you do’, he draws on an analysis familiar in white settler communities: metropolitan administrators and politicians are ignorant of Africa and Africans, and know nothing at first hand. 



Guns at Batasi explores the impact of loss of empire on British masculinity, providing an elegy for the soldier hero, particularly the imperial soldier. It continuously asserts the racial superiority of the British and at the same time shows that such superiority no longer provides any guarantee of authority or power.

There is a recurrent contrast between African disorder and violence and British order. Shot from a white British perspective, Africans are shown as a threatening mob in the opening sequence of the film, as British soldiers driving an army truck encounter African demonstrators, and in a later sequence that shows African demonstrators attacking the taxi in which Private Wilkes and Karen Eriksson are travelling. Following both these sequences there are cuts to the barracks and the mess as places where the British maintain order. Such order is symbolised by Lauderdale. In the first mess sequence a soldier takes down a portrait of the Queen, betting that Lauderdale will notice its absence within two minutes of arrival, and wins the bet. The emphasis on the domestic world inhabited by the British provides an ambivalent image, for the mess is not only a place of British order but also the place where, throughout the first half of the film, British soldiers are confined. In contrast to scenes of African action they are shown indoors, drinking, chatting, and playing billiards. Their passivity is emphasised by the comments of one soldier: ‘Bloody marvellous! Two hot chocolate mechanics chuck bricks at each other and the whole British army is immobilised’. He is rebuked by Lauderdale: ‘They’re not hot chocolate mechanics, they’re Africans’.

In the second mess sequence the order in the mess is connected with pre-1939 British colonial rule as the men swap stories about ‘best stations’, recalling ‘church parade in Singapore before the war’, and India — ‘Jewel of the East they used to call it — what a pity they had to give it away’. Lauderdale’s refusal to hand over Abraham to Boniface is linked to the imperial traditions of the British army. In a set piece confrontation with Boniface, Lauderdale tells him about serving on India’s North West Frontier: ‘Sometimes, Mr. Boniface, I’d lie awake in my tent with a hurricane lamp, sometimes in the middle of a blizzard, reading about the exploits of other British soldiers. Sometimes I’d be lying there in my freezing cold tent actually sweating. Beads of sweat pouring down my face from a battle two hundred years old’.

If Lauderdale symbolises the values of old imperial Britain, it is Miss Barker-Wise who symbolises the new era of loss of imperial power. The contrast between them is thus represented through sexual difference. Like Lauderdale, Miss Barker-Wise is unmarried and middle-aged, drinks whisky, smokes cigarettes, and speaks forcefully and with authority. The film makes clear that these are undesirable qualities in a woman, showing the acceptable unmarried female in a sergeant’s mess through the figure of Karen Ericksson who is youthful, pretty and sexy. Miss Barker-Wise is greeted with considerable derision by the men in the mess for her failings as a woman, and Lauderdale’s verdict — that she is an ‘old bag’ — is endorsed by the film. So is her championship of Africans in general and Boniface in particular. She claims him on various occasions as ‘a very humane man’ whose ‘principles are very sound’ and ‘a civilised and cultured man’. The film heavily underlines her error, showing Boniface as cruel, untrustworthy and unprincipled. At the end of the film, when she informs Lauderdale that Boniface has been made a Colonel, she admits that: ‘I disapprove of his (Boniface’s) methods as much as I do of yours’.

The success of the coup means that Boniface, not Lauderdale, has the last word, demanding that Lauderdale leave the country. The British Colonel confesses his own impotence as he orders Lauderdale to return to England by the next available aeroplane, at the same time admitting that in Lauderdale’s place he would have done exactly the same thing, ‘step for step’. The action of the soldier hero in the aftermath of loss of empire is thus shown as more likely to earn punishment than medals. In a brief moment of frustration and anger, Lauderdale disrupts British order, hurling a glass at the main symbol of authority in the mess – the portrait of the Queen. He then quickly reverts to his own meticulous standards, sweeping up the shattered glass, straightening the portrait, and marching briskly — even jauntily — away from the mess. Despite its closing image of an undaunted Lauderdale, Guns at Batasi is imbued with sadness for a lost world, and shows the British army profoundly affected by decolonisation — its capacity for action eroded to the point of immobility, its authority diminished, and its soldiers unhonoured.

Wendy Webster


Works Cited

Manchester Guardian, 25 September 1964, 23 November 1964.

New York Times 17 November 1964

Ward, Stuart ‘“No Nation Could be Broker”: The Satire Boom and the Demise of Britain’s World Role’ in Ward, ed. 2001, 91-110.

Ward, Stuart ed. British Culture and the End of Empire (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2001).

Webster, Wendy Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005)




Technical Data

Running Time:
103 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
9261 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain, USA
Camera Operator
BROWN, George H.
Sound Recording
Sound Recording
MacPHEE, Robert T.
PUGH, Marshall
Additional Dialogue
Art Director
CARTER, Maurice
Assistant Director
Author of the Original Work
HOLLES, Robert
cast member
cast member
cast member
BIDLAKE, Richard
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
HOLT, Patrick
cast member
cast member
cast member
JAMES, Horace
cast member
JOHN, Errol
cast member
LAYODE, Joseph
cast member
cast member
LODGE, David
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
STARK, Graham
LYONS, Stuart
Director of Photography
RITCHIE, Barbara
Music Performed by
Sinfonia of London
Production Company
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Production Company
Twentieth Century-Fox Productions Ltd
Production Manager
ORTON, David W.
HOLLES, Robert
Script Supervisor
Westrex Recording System
Sound Editor
Pinewood Studios