Richard Attenborough won his BAFTA for both his performance in this film and Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Many times actors who are recognized for two or three performances they may only really be worthy for one of their performances, but that is not the case of Richard Attenborough in 1964. Attenborough plays basically polar opposite characters in his two films from the year, and both of the performances are testament to his tremendous talent as an actor. In Guns at Batasi he plays a strong willed soldier Major Lauderdale, who is not to be bossed around by anyone, but in Seance on a Wet Afternoon he plays the antithesis of Lauderdale as Billy Bates a meek man henpecked by his wife to commit a kidnapping.
I might as well talk about both performances since Attenborough is amazing in both roles despite the character being so very different. As Regimental Sgt. Major Lauderdale Attenborough is absurdly entertaining at the beginning of the film in playing up the extreme devotion of the Major to the military life. Attenborough goes out of his way to accentuate the military background to Lauderdale in his extremely stiff spine and firm meticulous step. His speaking voice is that of sharp spikes it seems as his accent well accentuates the forcefulness of his personality as well his proper style. Lauderdale is a man of the books and Attenborough has an absolute conviction in his portrayal of this.
Attenborough goes all out here, he even seems to adjust the way his mouth moves, and even the shape of his face to further make Lauderdale into a very distinct character. Attenborough pulls off his whole physical characterization of Lauderdale. Attenborough proves himself as one of the best here because even though the performance technically speaking is very much a performance it never feels as such as he realizes Lauderdale as his own man rather than just a series of mannerisms he may have been in the hands of a lesser actor. The whole demeanor of Lauderdale is brilliantly brought to life by Attenborough which only ever succeeds in amplifying the impact of his character.
Attenborough is excellent as Bates because he does not make him just a foolish pathetic man as Bates could easily be seen as since Bates does just follow what his wife says which includes kidnapping the daughter of rich parents for some absurd plot she has concocted. Attenborough does well to make Billy the sympathetic one of the two leads always pushing the idea that Billy is the one who is trapped. There is never any malice in Attenborough depiction of Billy even as he is launching the crime rather he just portrays him as a very sad man going along with his wife says because that is all he really can do. It is said that Billy failed to leave her in the film, and in Attenborough work we can see the way the man has resigned himself to this fate.
Well enough of that somber stuff let's go back to Attenborough as Lauderdale where he is absurdly entertaining in the role. Attenborough has so much fun bringing to life the type that is Lauderdale in both a believable and enjoyable way. He strikes just the right tone never over stepping his boundary. His very first scene is great where he stops a sulking soldier to make that soldier get his step right. Attenborough is hilarious showing just how ticked off and disgusted Lauderdale is by such a simple mistake, yet he makes it seem natural that Lauderdale would react such a way. Attenborough does this with every little detail of Lauderdale and it just terrific whether it be his telling of the same old stories, or his instant spotting of an important picture not being on the mess room wall.
Lauderdale eventually is called into an action of sorts involving a coup whose leader just wants the British to sit out on. Lauderdale refuses to accept such things and Attenborough is brilliant once again when it comes time for action for Lauderdale. Attenborough makes this something that Lauderdale is in utter command of without question. Where Bates only follows orders Lauderdale is a man knows how to give them, and Attenborough has such a forcefulness here. Lauderdale commands a battle wills between the few British and a large group of African soldiers that surround, and even though they are outnumber he puts up more than just a fight. Attenborough is a master of the confrontation scenes as he makes the power of Lauderdale's personality unquestionable making every one of his victories easy to believe.
Poor Billy Bates though does not have the power of personality though as he is forced to watch his wife's scheme come to fruition. Attenborough easily could have been forgotten in this film considering that Billy is the sane one and is the shy one throughout the film, but actually I think Attenborough steals the film from Stanley with his genuine portrayal of Billy's fears and reservations as the plan go through. Attenborough adds a real dramatic weight to the film that may have been absent otherwise in his his reactionary role as Billy. Attenborough is very moving through the film by being the reluctant accomplish, who unlike Stanley who shows Myra going more and more insane, begins to more filled with regret that slowly force Billy to actually attempt to confront his wife.
Lauderdale is a man who needs no such prodding and Guns at Batasi is such an entertaining film because Attenborough makes Lauderdale such an entertaining hero to watch wage his personal fight. Lauderdale is not even necessarily the real hero though but Attenborough is so great in the role that you get behind him. Attenborough makes Lauderdale one of the stuffiest shirts around but hey he makes him an endearing stuff shirt who gets results. Poor Billy gets some results to, but not in the same way. Where Attenborough turn as Lauderdale is that of steely conviction just about throughout the course of the story, with Bates Attenborough shows a long process of finally having any self determination, and even then Attenborough shows that even his final objections is truly a painful thing for Billy to do as he has been so weak for so long.
Well leave it to Richard Attenborough to give not just one but two of the best performances of 1964. That is clearly not enough for Attenborough as they also have to be characters who could not be more different. Attenborough proves himself a master of the humble character in his poignant turn as Billy Bates uncompromising in his depiction of a humble man unable to meet the demands of his insane wife. Attenborough also proves himself a master of the boisterous larger than life character with that of Major Lauderdale. I just loved every single second of his performance as Major Lauderdale. It is just a joy to watch him in the role, and by the end of the film I only wanted to see more of the man. Well there it is two characters that share nothing in common other than the fact that they are flawlessly played by one of the greatest actors of all time Richard Attenborough.