Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Invitation to a lynching

A powerful movie tells the true story of an innocent man and the trial that ended the death penalty in England.


Charles Taylor
August 19, 1998 9:05PM (UTC)

On July 30, a British appeals court did what it could to right one of that
country's most notorious miscarriages of justice by exonerating Derek
Bentley, hanged in 1953 at the age of 19 for the murder of a police
officer. The court found that Bentley had been denied "that fair trial
which is the birthright of every British citizen." The judge had instructed
the jury to disregard the whole of Bentley's defense, and to give an
inordinate amount of weight to what was most likely perjured police
testimony.

There were other problems. Bentley (who also suffered from epilepsy and was
nearly illiterate) was estimated to have a mental age of 11 and should
probably never have appeared in court. The biggest problem, though, was
something that no one disputed: Bentley had not committed the murder. In
fact, he'd been arrested, without offering any resistance, 20 minutes
earlier by a policeman at the scene. The killer's identity was never in
doubt: Bentley's friend, 16-year-old Chris Craig. Bentley and Craig were
surprised by police while breaking into a London warehouse, and Craig, who
was armed, opened fire, killing an officer. Because of his age, Craig could
not be tried as an adult (he received 10 years and was released in 1963),
so thoughts of vengeance turned to Bentley. At the trial, several policemen
testified that Bentley had incited Craig to shoot by yelling, "Let him have
it, Chris!" Both Bentley and Craig denied he had ever said those words.
Even if he had, they prove nothing. As Bentley's lawyer argued, "Let him
have it, Chris!" could easily have meant "Give him the gun, Chris!"

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That's certainly what Bentley (Christopher Eccleston) means when he
frantically blurts out the line in Peter Medak's 1991 film "Let Him Have
It." The double meaning here is in the title. Stripped of the exclamation
point, "Let Him Have It" becomes a cold, methodical description of what the
British judicial system did to Derek Bentley. In the movie's view, his
execution was the horribly logical culmination of the way Derek had been
treated all his life by the systems meant to care for his welfare.

Medak and his screenwriters, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, begin their
account of Derek's path to the gallows with an adolescent act of petty
vandalism that sends him to a reform school. He serves only a few years
because, the headmaster admits, his low IQ and epilepsy make him difficult
to reach. But when Derek's father (Tom Courtenay) charges that a boy in
such a condition should never have been sent up in the first place, the only
answer the headmaster can muster, in precise, upper-class tones, is that
Derek committed a crime, and something had to be done. In the world of "Let
Him Have It," the hardest thing for those in power to do is admit they've
made a mistake.

"Let Him Have It" picks up Derek's story in 1952, a year after his release
from reform school. Isolated from his old friends and embarrassed about his
stint at the school, his low intelligence and his seizures, Derek hasn't
once set foot outside the family home. He spends his locked days in his
room with the blinds drawn, smoking and poring over comic books. Pressured
by his parent's worried and well-meaning entreaties to get a job, Derek
turns to his devoted sister Iris (Clare Holman, who gives a lovely
performance as a young woman defined by her warmth and common sense) to act
as a buffer. Finally, though, getting Derek out of the house takes another
woman as well: singer Kay Starr. Derek hears Starr's "Wheel of Fortune" on
the wireless and flips for it. Iris convinces him to accompany her to the
local record shop to buy his own copy. Soon he's going out on his own,
walking the dogs and running errands. He even gets a job street sweeping.
But in the movie's cruel central twist, Derek emerges from his small,
private world only to become enmeshed in the fantasy universe of a
sociopath.

If "Let Him Have It" argues that British society did nothing for Derek
Bentley, it is honestly baffled about what could have been done for Chris
Craig (Paul Reynolds). Short, squat and with baby fat still clinging to his
cheeks, Craig seems no more than a kid. When his older brother, Niven (Paul
McGann), a full-blown con whom he worships, is sent to prison, Craig weeps
in his bedroom like a child. The jarring note is the revolver he clutches
as some kids would a teddy bear. In their overcoats and fedoras, Craig and
his cronies play at being the gangsters they've seen in American movies,
carrying guns or tagging along to help Niven unload his swag. They're
half-size hoods (their version of a speakeasy is the local dairy bar), and
they'd be funny if they weren't so dangerous. (It should be said that since
being released from prison in 1963, Craig has had no trouble with the law.
After Bentley's exoneration, he said, "A day does not go by when I don't
think about Derek.") All that matters to Derek is that Craig accepts him
without making him feel stupid.

At one point during the uproar that follows Derek's death sentence, the
British home secretary says that "the British judicial system is now on
trial." Medak, Purvis and Wade prove devastating prosecutors. What follows
from Derek and Craig's botched break-in (expertly filmed) is both agonizing
and unbearably swift. Listening to Derek trying to make himself understood
in the witness box is like trying to untangle crossed wires using an egg
beater.

Everything the movie has suggested about Britain's class system pays off in
its trial scenes. Medak asks us to imagine what it means to plead for your
life before a man dressed in one of those ridiculous wigs, whose manner
tells you he's taken the title of "Lord" all too literally. But "Let Him
Have It" also shows us the public outcry that resulted from Derek's death
sentence. The legacy of that outcry was Parliament's abolition, 12 years
later, of the death penalty. (That's one of the reasons Americans can't
feel superior watching this movie: We have steadfastly refused to be moved
by the inevitability that the death penalty will result in the execution of
an innocent person.)

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Medak never lets his anger at what happened to Derek Bentley overwhelm his
film's humanity. As Derek, Eccleston, staring warily out of his deep-set
eyes, greets the world outside the safety of his home as if he were a child
set loose in a dark forest. Hunched over, his movements are lumbering yet
tentative, as if he weren't sure how to work his body. Eccleston is
ineffably touching as he shows Derek taking uncertain steps toward forming
his own identity, working to get past his shame. The payoff of Eccleston's
performance is the dignity Derek achieves awaiting his execution as he
tries to allay his family's sadness with jokes and good cheer.

There's another major performance in "Let Him Have It." Courtenay is
best known as the hero of the British Angry Young Man movies "Billy Liar"
and "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," but he's never been
better than he is here. William Bentley is an ordinary man forced to act
with extraordinary courage at the same time he's forced to question the
faith he's always placed in the bedrock institutions of his society. As
William chokes down his own fears and presses ahead, determined to save his
son's life, Courtenay achieves a heroic decency.

"Let Him Have It" is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It's also not an easy
movie to watch. Amid the institutional savagery it depicts are glimpses
of singularly British moments of compassion: On Derek's way to the gallows,
one of his guards (Michael Elphick) favors him with a quick, nearly
subliminal wink, encouraging him to be brave for just a bit longer. "Let
Him Have It" was lost in the shuffle of holiday releases when it opened
here in 1991. I caught it on the last night of its run, and it put me in a
funk for days afterward. The end titles tell us that William and his wife
Lillian continued to fight to clear Derek's name until their deaths in the
'70s. "Today," the final title reads, "Iris continues that fight." Iris
died from cancer early last year. It was Iris' daughter, Maria
Dingwall-Bentley, who toasted her uncle's exoneration a few weeks ago.
There was a final poignant detail to the celebration: The bottle of
champagne she opened had been purchased by her mother and grandfather in
1958 in anticipation of the day when they could savor their victory.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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