His Excellency (1952)
His Excellency is an interesting film that is wholeheartedly of its time. No, let me rephrase that: His Excellency is a film that is wholeheartedly 'of its time' when it was in production but which, by the time of its release in 1952, was a year too late. With the return of a conservative government in October 1951, this tale of an ex-docker George Harrison (Eric Portman) ...
... appointed as the governor of a British colony, the film was already out of date. The idea of a Labour government appointing a 'man of the people' to oversee a troublesome colony was a relevant comic device that would have resonated with audiences in the late 1940s.
The film starts out as a light hearted 'fish out of water' comedy: put a man in a place where he is unsuited to the lifestyle and then watch as he becomes a tool to expose the hypocrisies of those around. It's a device used in films as diverse as Mr Deeds Goes To Washington or Crocodile Dundee. Here we have the socialist thrown into a world of grand offices ...
... and having to deal with Sir James Kirkman, a diplomat from the Colonial Office (Cecil Parker) ...
|Cecil Parker & Eric Portman|
... who has his own ideas about running a colony. They are from two separate worlds: when Sir James tries to warn Harrison against addressing a group of striking dockworkers he tells him: "They wont' be like a British crowd." To which Harrison replies "Ever been to a Clydeside meeting?"
Harrison is also an ex-soldier - a sergeant in the First World War - who now inspects the garrison alongside a general ...
... and finds himself suddenly having the power to order the arrest of the admiral (Edward Chapman):
|Edward Chapman & Clive Morton|
When Harrsion decides to get the troublesome admiral transferred, he knows he can do it because - although he didn't go to Eton - he and the current head of the Admiralty did claim the dole from the same office back in 1931. It's the 'old boys' network turned upside down.
Filmed in Sicily, the story is set on a fictional Mediterranean island called 'Arista' although with its naval dockyards and military garrison it is clear that the film is supposed to represent an amalgam of Gibraltar and Malta.
The film's problem is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. The promise of a 'fish out of water' comedy is soon lost. The observations of the ladies of the local English tea rooms ...
... soon expose the problem of a socialist straying into their world. If the governor has to be a socialist, he should at least be one of the right sort - like their friend's son who "picked up a lot of odd ideas" at university: "you at least know what stable he came out of." However Harrison isn't one of the right sort, its as if his character challenges not only theses genteel ladies but also challenges the film makers: he's a difficult character and they don't know what to do with him. So instead of continuing the comedy the film changes direction and heads off to look at the challenges of the post-colonial world.
In many ways Harrison can be seen as a later version of the role played by Eric Portman in the 1944 film Millions Like Us: an idealistic socialist Yorkshireman with clear ideas of what the world's future should look like. The questions he raised in that earlier film have now been answered and he has the ability to help change the world for the better. it's an optimistic message for what were optimistic times.
Harrison is a socialist who is, in the eyes of the world, the oppressor of his colonial subjects. Yet he has no sympathy with the island's tax-avoiding elite who seem destined to take control when the inevitable happens and British rule comes to an end. Instead, he sympathises with the local workers ...
... who are struggling to make ends meet and agitating for an end to British rule. The film strays into deeper territory when it exposes the corruption of local trade union leader, Morellos (Geoffrey Keen):
Harrison's direct appeals to the workers, in which he presents himself as being on their side rather than against them, ...
... are a challenge to the notion that colonial control cannot be for the best. His situation also raises the question of the how colonial control should best be ended: who is best qualified to set the agenda for a future independent state? Its own reactionary elites or a distant colonial, but forward thinking, overlord?
Unfortunately the film raises more questions than it answers.
Also appearing are:
Howard Marion Crawford:
His Excellency is currently available as part of Volume 10 of the Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. It's one of the best of the collection since it features the wonderful but long-forgotten Saloon Bar and the emotionally draining The Divided Heart:
This poster is currently available from 'Rare Film Posters':