Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean writes about James Mason’s final screen appearance in THE SHOOTING PARTY.
What is it about the English country house weekend? From PG Wodehouse to Agatha Christie, from Gosford Park to Upstairs, Downstairs, we are by now so acquainted with its rituals that, even before Downton Abbey came along, most of us could give a detailed, if perhaps clichéd, account of one. We may never have dressed for dinner or circulated the port or – as would have been more likely for most of us – polished the boots of the gentry, but we are very familiar with the class distinctions, and the habits and attitudes of both servers and served.
I feared The Shooting Party, the 1985 film in which James Mason makes his last appearance, might have nothing new to say on the subject, but it goes some way towards subverting the stereotypes and confounding our expectations. Adapted from Isabel Colegate’s prize-winning novel, it’s directed by Alan Bridges, who was known mainly for his TV work, but who had won the Palme d’Or in 1973 for The Hireling, based on LP Hartley’s period novel about an inter-class love affair.
The Shooting Party is set in the autumn of 1913 and from the very start presages the coming conflict. It opens with a shot, in black and white, of a procession of people walking across an open field, a stretcher party in their midst. It’s clearly England in peacetime, and there are women in the group, but it powerfully evokes WW1 footage.
The film then switches to colour and introduces us a group of guests assembling at a country house for a weekend of pheasant shooting, horse riding and fine dining and, for some, flirtation and adultery. The film boasts a particularly fine cast. Here are Edward Fox as Lord Gilbert Hartlip, a crack shot unhappily married to a spendthrift and faithless wife (Cheryl Campbell), Robert Hardy as Lord Bob Lilburn, the genial, buffoonish husband of a beautiful young Judi Bowker, and Rupert Frazer as a rising lawyer with literary leanings who is in love with her. Their hosts are Sir Randolph and Lady Minnie Nettleby (James Mason and Dorothy Tutin). Later John Gielgud, Gordon Jackson and Frank Windsor are added to the mix.
Mason’s part would have been played by Paul Scofield had it not been for an accident on the first day of filming that nearly cut a swathe through British acting talent. Five of the men in the cast were being filmed arriving at the shoot in a horse-drawn brake. The driver’s footplate gave way and he fell to the ground between the horses and the brake, with concussion from a blow to the head. The driverless horses panicked and headed at speed for a low hanging beech tree and then turned sharply to avoid a fence line. The brake overturned and those who had not already jumped clear were thrown out. Scofield’s leg was badly broken and he was hospitalized for several weeks while Fox sustained broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder.
There was a hiatus while a replacement for Scofield was found. Eventually, the BBC (one of the film’s backers) released Mason from a TV role he was working on – a piece of exceptional good fortune for the production team as it’s doubtful if even Scofield could have given a finer performance.
Mason’s Sir Randolph is a thoughtful and benevolent employer who commands respect, even from the local poacher, and the Lloyd George supporters who gather in the pub. But where he differs from most of his class is in his doubts about the justice of privilege and his awareness of changes on the horizon. In a voice-over that accompanies the opening shot we hear him say “Life was extraordinarily pleasant for those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the right place. Ought it to be so pleasant? And for so few of us? …….. Might war cleanse us of our materialism? Our cynicism, our lax and lazy hypocrisies?”
Similar concerns about the existing social structure are aired throughout the film, and objections voiced to the culture of killing for sport and male competitiveness. It’s disconcerting therefore to hear the producer, Geoff Reeve say in a 2006 interview that he optioned the book because it “seemed to embrace the values and beliefs I held at that time. Apart from believing in God, we believed in the British Empire and, if you like, the lord of the manor …….. Very old fashioned ideas. And The Shooting Party endorsed those beliefs.” I’m sure the book’s author would have been surprised to hear this, and it’s clear that Julian Bond, the screenwriter didn’t share Reeve’s view.
The script is, however, not the film’s strongest point, even though it received a BAFTA nomination. Bond, who had worked exclusively in television up to that point, generously admits it lacks the book’s complexity and that whatever depth and meaning it has is mainly thanks to the actors.
Mason is especially effective in two scenes, one humorous, the other poignant. In the first John Gielgud, playing an animal rights activist bent on sabotaging the shoot, walks in front of the guns with a placard bearing the message Thou Shalt Not Kill. He is brought before Mason and the conversation that follows, in which they discover a common interest in pamphleteering, is sheer joy.
The film’s climax is the accidental shooting of the poacher (Gordon Jackson). While he lies dying, Mason offers comfort and reassurance and together they recite the Lord’s Prayer. The scene could have been mawkish in the hands of lesser actors, but here it’s done with great delicacy and genuine emotion. Both Frank Windsor and Rupert Frazer who appear as bystanders recall the profound effect on them of witnessing the performances at close range.
It’s worth noting that Gordon Jackson, playing an Englishman, reveals his Presbyterian roots by reciting the Scottish version of the Lord’s Prayer with its reference to debts rather than the Anglican trespasses and I suspect that Bridges chose to leave this in rather than go for another, possibly inferior, take.
The rest of the cast is no less impressive. While negotiations for Scofield’s replacement were taking place, Bridges shot a delightful small scene between Robert Hardy and Judi Bowker. Told to take their time over it, for there was nothing else that could be filmed, they turn a seemingly trivial discussion about cufflinks into a subtle and revealing portrait of a marriage.
The delays caused by the accident meant it became impossible to film the script in its totality. Apart from financial problems, the weather was becoming too wintry and the shooting season was drawing to a close. It had been planned to follow the fortunes of the male characters as they entered the war, but instead it was decided to close the film with a reprise of the opening shot of the party walking across the field with what we now know to be the poacher’s body. This time it’s in colour, with captions telling us where and when the men were killed in action.
Mason was shown the finished film but died of a heart attack aged 75 in July 1984 only six months after shooting was completed and before its cinema release. He was posthumously named Actor of the Year by the London Critics Circle, an award he richly deserved.