A group of veteran British sergeants, headed by an ultra-correct, order-barking Regimental Sergeant Major (Richard Attenborough), are caught between two dissident factions in an unnamed newly created African state (most likely Kenya, since the character of RSM Lauderdale mentions that the Turkana people live in the north, which is where they live in Kenya. The African soldiers also speak amongst themselves in Kiswahili, the lingua franca of the region). The story neatly exposes the feelings of the professional NCOs, their officers and the African soldiers and officers, who are still painfully new to both guns and political slogans.
When the post-colonial government of the unnamed African country is overthrown by a populist uprising, troops loyal to the new administration take over the barracks, arrest the commanding officer and seize weapons. With the British NCOs cut off in the Sergeants' mess during the mutiny, the action boils down to the initiative and confusion of the griping, duty-hardened British soldiers in defending Captain Abraham (Earl Cameron) (a wounded African officer), and themselves, against the mutineers. The mess situation is further complicated by having to temporarily accommodate Miss Barker-Wise, a female British MP (Flora Robson) and Karen Eriksson, a UN secretary (Mia Farrow), the latter providing some love interest.
Eventually the minor action comes to an anti-climactic end when the country's new administration allows the senior British officers to return to the barracks at Batasi and end the siege, but not before the RSM and a private involve themselves in some 'action' -- the destruction of two Bofors guns Lieutenant Boniface had brought out to threaten the Sergeants' mess. The film concludes with the news that a new government is in power. The film illustrates an erupting new world where the so-called common man, both black and white, no longer has a clear idea of the realpolitik due to the social revolutions in a post-colonial world.Richard Attenborough as Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale. Attenborough won a BAFTA Film Award for his performance as the R.S.M.. He is a traditional hero with an unblinking dedication to the letter of military law. In the face of attack by African troops with a Bofors gun or a showdown with the African leader of the revolt, he proves his mettle in unflinching, steely style, but he is ultimately portrayed as a man out of synch with his times, too rigid to adapt, and his actions ultimately prove futile, if gallant.
Jack Hawkins as Colonel Deal, a traditional "old school" officer whose values are becoming anachronistic within a changing colonial world.
Flora Robson as Miss Barker-Wise MP, as a visiting Member of Parliament, provides a restrained performance as the shocked and confused politician caught up in the sudden turn of events. Robson's sympathetic portrayal balances the action with the political motivations. Her character states the film's theme precisely when she says to Attenborough's character: "I disapprove of their methods as I do of yours"; the character appears to share (at least in theory) the revolutionary objectives of the rebels while not understanding what means such objectives entail.
John Leyton as Private Wilkes
Mia Farrow as Karen Eriksson, United Nations secretary, provide a youthful perspective on the proceedings.
Cecil Parker as Fletcher
Errol John as Lieutenant Boniface, John plays the mutinous officer as a hard and relentless man who is acting on ideologies.
Graham Stark as Sergeant 'Dodger' Brown
Earl Cameron as Captain Abraham
Percy Herbert as Colour Sergeant Ben Parkin
David Lodge as Sergeant 'Muscles' Dunn
John Meillon as Sergeant 'Aussie' Drake
Bernard Horsfall as Sergeant 'Schoolie' Prideaux
Patrick Holt as Captain
Alan Browning as Adjutant
Richard Bidlake as Lieutenant
Horace James as Corporal Abou
Joseph Layode as Archibong Shaw
Ric Hutton as Russell
The novel was originally published in 1962. It was adapted as a screenplay by Robert Holles, from an original adaptation credited to Leo Marks, Marshall Pugh, and C.M. Pennington-Richards.
The film was originally to be made by Roy and John Boulting, who wanted to make a return to drama after a series of comedies. "We think the time is ripe for us to return to the serious subject," said Roy Boulting.
Roy Boulting said he intended to start filming in August 1963 at Shepperton Studios with four weeks location filming in West Africa. The budget of $1 million was to be provided by Bryanston Films and British Lion. However the film would eventually instead be made by John Guillermin and 20th Century Fox.
The film, which was made in CinemaScope, was made entirely at Pinewood Studios between February and April, 1964 although it was set in tropical Africa (it was made at the same time as Goldfinger). The exterior night scenes were filmed on a sound stage and opening scenes were done on Salisbury Plain.
Britt Ekland was originally cast as Karen Eriksson but quit three weeks into production. The Swedish actress had just married Peter Sellers who apparently was so paranoid about her having an affair with Leyton he secretly asked his old acting friends, David Lodge and Graham Stark who were co-starring in the picture, to spy on his new wife. After being quizzed nightly on the phone by Sellers about her scenes and who she was with, Ekland quit to join Sellers in Los Angeles. Her role was quickly recast and completed by Farrow. In response 20th Century Fox sued Ekland for $1.5 million; Sellers counter-sued for $4 million claiming the Fox suit caused him "mental distress and injury to his health".
Three-packs-a-day smoker Jack Hawkins' voice is audibly fraying: it was almost the last film he made before surgery for throat cancer removed his vocal cords and left him with little more than a whisper.
The score was recorded by the Sinfonia of London orchestra.
The DVD commentary on the making of the film is narrated by John Leyton.