The Shooting Party is set in 1913, which is not very long ago, and yet is
another world. This was the last year of the old world, and the start of
the modern world. The opening narration by James Mason sets the theme:
that the world of the haves and have-nots is doomed, and that the future
holds great change.
This was Mason's last film, and his was a part very well suited to him, far
better than the host of sinister villains he played in American movies. He
is the great patriarch, head of the family, and benign chief of the great
estate. He is not a soppy fool, but he is kind and means well to all. He
invites many aristocrats to his estate for a few days of shooting, and
these arrive, with their servants.
In the house, then, are representatives of much of the world at that time:
the upper classes, some British, some foreign, and the lower classes, some
servants, some local rustics who will be the beaters for the shoot. The
film then shows us how they are all behaving.
Both the upper and the lower classes are stuck in their ways, though if
anything, it is the upper class which questions whether this is the way
things should be. When a manservant copies the love letters of his master
in order to woo one of the maids, she is not won over by such language, as
it is not of her world. When Mason offers to send a talented lad to art
school, his father is quick to say "No sir, he knows what's good for him",
i.e. to stay with his lower-class peers. When the shooting pauses for tea,
the posh folk sit elegantly but uncomfortably in a clean white marquee, and
drink from china, while the beaters look far happier drinking from mugs filled
from a communal urn and chatting amongst themselves.
The foreign aristocrats are haughty, and annoy the British by referring to
the beaters as "peasants". The British aristocrats are not happy. Two
young idealists are in the agony of a forbidden love, others have sham
marriages or petty rivalries.
The world is one full of love, but much of it frustrated. A boy has a pet
duck, which he fears will be shot. Mason has a liking for a local poacher
whom he hires as a beater, despite the contempt which the hunt master has
for the man. By the end of the film, you feel great liking and sympathy
for many of the characters.
To get the most from this film, some knowledge of history and British
culture is required, but there is much to like in this film without these.
The acting and dialogue are good, the setting atmospheric, and what is
being said about the people of the time is so very fair. This film does
not hammer home any of its points, but shows both the good and the bad in
the characters, and lets the viewer decide.
All through the film, our present-day knowledge of the slaughter to come in
the churned mud of the Somme, Ypres, Paschendale and the Dardenelles stays
with us, affecting the way we perceive every nuance. The film makers were
clearly aware of this, and take full advantage of it.
The ending is one of the most moving I know from any film. Simple, yet