Directed by: Peter Medak
I sit here stunned. This shouldn’t be possible, not on ‘The Stars Collection’, but finally we have a bloody good film, the penultimate part of this epic run. I’m not going to score this film at the end of the review because doing so would seem trivial in the context of the gross injustice that occurred in the case that this film is based upon. Simply put, you must see this film.
When I’m not wasting time writing about film, or music, I also waste time writing about serious matters for a website that seeks the truth in a culture riddled with horror, sleaze and trash. Scribbling down cack-handed missives to the ether about homelessness, drug rehabilitation programmes, free speech, and generally getting riled up about the ills of society meant that ‘Let Him Have It’ therefore appealed to my sensibilities as it sought to present the truth in a case where an “innocent” man was sentenced to death.
Derek Bentley was afflicted by epilepsy from childhood; he also had learning difficulties, after a few misdemeanours he was sent to a school for disruptive children. After leaving education he lived a reclusive life in his family home. His parents and sister attempted to get him out of his shell, and encouraged him to spend more time outside. Eventually he did, and he fell in with the wrong crowd, a group of wannabe gangsters, who perhaps took advantage of Bentley and lead him astray.
Christopher Eccleston is superb as Bentley, and this performance demonstrated his acting talent, which it could be said has thus far not been fulfilled in any career defining leading movie role, but then maybe this was it, a film that many people will never get round to watching. C’est la vie. Eccleston’s most memorable performances it could be argued have been on television, and though that shouldn’t diminish his achievements, it is a shame he hasn’t hit the big time.
The Derek Bentley case left an indelible black mark. Bentley and his friend Christopher Craig botched a confectionary company robbery. They found themselves stranded on a rooftop. The police were called, and there was a tense stand-off. Craig pulled out a handgun and allegedly Bentley said “Let him have it”. Shots were fired. During the trial the defence argued that when Bentley said “Let him have it” he was instructing Craig to hand over the gun to the police. The prosecution argued that what Bentley actually meant was for Craig to shoot at the police. Craig when interviewed in 1991 denied that those words were ever spoken. Craig shot dead a policeman in the ensuring shoot out. Both Bentley and Craig were arrested and went to court, both were found guilty of murder. Since Craig was only sixteen years old at the time he was sentenced to ten years. Bentley was nineteen years old and sentenced to death, though the jury made a plea for mercy. There are those of the opinion that Bentley was not fit to stand trial, due to his extremely low IQ and learning difficulties, yet at the time the concept of diminished responsibility did not exist, and wasn’t introduced until 1951.
Bentley’s fate has been held up as an example of why capital punishment should not exist in the United Kingdom, the last executions took place in 1964, eleven years after Bentley was hanged. When Bentley’s lawyers initially appealed against the guilty verdict, the Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyge and The Home Office didn’t bat an eyelid. The verdict stood, despite public and political objection. It seems likely that someone needed to pay the price after the murder of a policeman. A message needed to be sent to the rest of society. Christopher Craig, the murderer, the sixteen year old who shot the policeman, escaped punishment, and was able to rehabilitate himself, putting the case behind him, yet Bentley at 9am on the 28th January 1953 was another mark on the tally of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most famous executioner.
In 1998 the Court of Appeal pardoned Bentley posthumously, Bentley’s parents and sister, who thought so hard against Derek’s conviction were not alive to witness this moment.
Ah, the movie. I almost forgot. The key to the films brilliance is the screenplay. The writing partnership of Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, who have since gone on to revive the flagging Bond franchise, produced an amazingly accurate version of events, which simply sticks to the facts of the case. This isn’t a preachy protest tale, more an intelligent display of anger at the injustice of the Bentley case.
Accurately painting the 1950s youth as a bunch of post-war survivors searching for a rebellious identity in light of a life of ration books and peaceful conservatism, director Peter Medak helps us to understand why kids owned firearms. Rock n’ Roll was beginning to shape a generation, every boy looked to the States for edgy role models, in the case of many lads, sharply dressed gangsters who drove fast cars and carried guns. This led to gangs of teenage males going around committing petty crimes. Derek Bentley looked for somewhere to belong; he was sucked in to an adventurous life beyond his hum drum reclusive existence, and Christopher Craig, played by Paul Reynolds (of ‘Press Gang’ fame) gave him the opportunity to encounter the kind of danger he was never prepared for.