Tuesday, December 4, 2018

British Agent (1934)

Directed by Michael Curtiz; no producer credited

In 1917 Russia, a lone representative of Britain (Leslie Howard) fights two battles, one overt and one clandestine, to keep the new Bolshevik government in the war against Germany and, if that fails, to overthrow it. His task is complicated by his rocky affair with a secretary (Kay Francis) of the Bolsheviks’ Political Committee, a woman who makes no apologies for her loyalty to the Revolution - or for her love for the Englishman.

My reaction to this film is probably unique to my movie-watching. I found it intensely interesting - but can give it only a mild recommendation.

First, I will explain the interest. British Agent is a fictionalised account of the true exploits of Robert Bruce Lockhart, as described in his memoirs, a book that I bought and read years ago. (I have a strong interest in early twentieth century espionage.)

Real people are given movie pseudonyms: Lockhart becomes Locke, Sir George Buchanan is Sir Walter Carrister, Kerensky is Kolonoff, Trotsky is easily recognizable as ‘the commissioner for war’, while the head of the Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) holds Dzerzhinsky’s position but looks like Stalin; Lenin is depicted but his name is pronounced Leneen, and the British prime minister is supposed to be Lloyd George but resembles Balfour.

Nevertheless, for a fictionalised version, the events parallel reality very closely, though with some alterations (eg. the sacking of the British Embassy in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) and the murder of the naval attaché there become the pillage of the consulate in Moscow and the murder of a diplomatic employee.)

The story is as straightforward a tale of political and intelligence operations as you’ll find; there is no editorialising, no taking sides. Locke is a patriotic Briton trying to keep Russia on his country’s side in a life-or-death struggle against a common enemy, while Elena is a dedicated revolutionary who sees Bolshevism as the answer to man’s ills. The savage nature of the Communist regime is not hidden, nor are the illegal attempts by Locke to oust it. I found this impartiality highly refreshing, and filmed entertainment probably would not see it again until the Reilly tv series, starring Sam Neill.

Even so, I cannot strongly recommend British Agent (though it would have an appeal to those devoted to history). I found the romance between the two protagonists to be a distraction. This is ironic, since it was a central feature of the real-life story. Often, in truth, there is no love affair, and it has to be added by Hollywood. Locke is repeatedly played for a fool by his girlfriend and, while this may be realistic, is rather tiresome to watch. As well, the dialogue spoken by the lovers is melodramatic and full of lines that no one but a screenwriter could imagine people uttering.

The sudden ending comes via a deus ex machina that definitely is straight out of the world of fiction, and does not reflect real events, which resolved themselves in a rather unsatisfactory way over a lengthy period of time. The fateful decision, made by Lenin, that clears up the problems at the finale was definitely not one which he would have made.

These are not small problems, and hurt the film. But its involving plot, set in a tumultuous and chaotic time, and its clean-cut portrayal of events, give British Agent an attraction to some that is out of proportion to its other qualities. But those who will be pleased with it will, I think, be a minority in its audience.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't call myself well-read about the history of espionage, but that sure was a fascinating--if ultimately rather catastrophic--period of history.

    But I can't stop giggling at the thought of Kay Francis as a Bolshie.