How does Peter Medak gain the viewers’ sympathy in the film, “Let him have it”
In the film, Let him have it, the Director, Peter Medak, portrays Derek William Bentley as a weak, naive, poorly-educated young man who never really understands what is going on around him. Bentley has the mental age of an eleven year-old, cannot read or write, and suffers from epilepsy. We can only compare him to his ‘friend’, Christopher Craig, whose arrogance and street-wisdom he wishes to emulate. The film language used by Medak communicates to the audience on many different levels – through the use of camera shots, music, lighting moods, and character.
From the start, Bentley is seen as a victim of circumstance and Medak gives us a biased view of him, as in reality, he is perhaps less innocent than he is shown. Some may argue that Medak has embellished the story to make the film more marketable. Furthermore, Medak portrays the justice system as a complete failure, which increases the viewers’ sympathy for Bentley. From the audiences’ point of view, it is blatantly obvious that Medak’s Bentley is innocent from the start, and therefore, it becomes more tragic to follow his downfall. Overall, Let him have it, is a cold description of what the British judicial system did to Derek Bentley.
Medak arranges the film in four main parts – Bentley’s childhood; on the roof; the trial, and the execution.
Medak sets the scene by showing us the streets of devastation after the Blitz. We see ruined buildings, bomb sites, dirty gutters, stray animals and the injured. He completes the introduction by having the camera focus on a girl, painstakingly searching through rubble. In the background Medak’s use of sombre music evokes nostalgia for the period, and as the last bricks are removed, the camera closes in on a young boy (the dazed Derek Bentley), half covered in blood, but alive. This is our first meeting with Bentley, and the concussion the 7 year-old suffers as a result of this incident, leads to several epileptic fits later in the film. The irony being that his life is saved at this stage from an Act of God, only to be taken away later by Man.
The story moves on quickly, and we soon find that the delicate Bentley, who has led a protected and reclusive existence, now, at 19, emerges from his small, private world, – walking the dogs, running errands and he even getting himself a job as a street sweeper – only to become enmeshed in the fantasy life of Christopher Craig.
From the outset, Peter Medak portrays Bentley as an innocent, and we, the audience, cannot help but warm to the boy. As he opens the door the camera pans in on him revealing a facial expression that not only holds sympathy, but also becomes his common expression throughout the film. The audience is even hopeful for Derek, which further increases our sympathetic view towards him. If fate hadn’t introduced this vulnerable young man to Craig, then possibly Bentley would have gone on to have a happy life. Although, this sympathy would not have been prolonged, if Medak hadn’t included clips of Bentley’s past.
In the film, British society does nothing for Derek Bentley and also nothing for Craig. The latter is portrayed as a short, squat boy, still with puppy fat. The only person Craig looks up to is his elder brother, Niven, and his life begins to disintegrate when Niven is sent to prison. Craig is devastated at the loss of his brother, and Medak shows him sobbing like a child, in his bedroom, with the sinister twist of him clutching a revolver as a kid would a teddy bear.
In their overcoats, Craig and his friends act like the gun-toting gangsters they have seen in American movies. This would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous. All that matters to Bentley is that Craig accepts him as a friend/colleague, without making him feel stupid. An unconditional friendship.
This acceptance is cemented when Bentley is given a knuckle-duster by Craig. Medak evokes our sympathy by using the knuckle-duster as the basis of dramatic irony; Bentley sees it purely as a gift but he has no intention of using it:-
“Something I never had, something that was given to me.”
The drama on the roof which leads to Bentley’s demise, is shot in semi-twilight, making use of strong shadows, much like several other scenes in the film. As well as this, Medak’s use of subtle lighting effects, are vital to the creation of the mood of the period and the piece.
On reaching the roof, the camera cuts to a girl saying the Lord’s Prayer. Ironically, she stops on “forgive us our trespasses,” – in this case, the trespassers, Bentley and Craig are not to be forgiven.
Medak again used the child-Bentley as a metaphor for enhancing our sympathy for him as a teenager. At the sound of the approaching police cars, Bentley’s first thought is not for himself, but what his family will think of him if he gets caught:
“My dad’s going to kill me.”
We notice throughout the film, that Medak’s development of the script and his use of language, help to evoke our feelings towards Bentley. To this point Medak has created suspense and excitement, and has engrossed the viewers in intrigue and conspiracy.
When Bentley finally says, “Let him have it,” the camera focuses on his frightened face. We immediately perceive his innocence and the film compels the viewer to feel sympathetic towards him. Even if his words did imply “kill him,” Bentley himself was not holding the weapon – he did not pull the trigger, and the victim, Sergeant Fairfax, wasn’t actually killed.
Tension builds further through a series of visual shots between the barrel of Craig’s gun and his face. When the bullet with Fairfax’ name on it leaves the barrel of the gun, Medak runs the whole scene in slow motion, cutting between the two main protagonists – Craig, with his smug, yet worried look; and Bentley, totally mortified.
Moving on, everything the film has suggested about Britain’s class system comes to fruition in the trial scene. The trial is depicted in a very intimidating way. Medak places us, his audience, in the dock in place of the accused. He would have us imagine what it means to plead for one’s life, before an intimidating figure of the Establishment, topped-off in a wig.
At one point, during the public outcry over Bentley’s trial, the Home Secretary of the day states that the “British judicial system is now on trial.” Nowadays, a statement like this would be totally unacceptable, and would be seen to put a ‘fair trial’ in jeopardy. Medak proves to be a devastating prosecutor and what follows is agonizing and swift. We feel for Bentley as he valiantly endeavours to make himself understood in the witness box.
Medak shows Bentley as a weak and feeble lad, severely beaten by the police, whereas Craig is shown with his infamous cock-sure look. Bentley doesn’t refuse any questions, but Medak makes him think, and in the process, the boy with a mental age of an eleven-year-old, becomes muddled and confused.
As the trial progresses, Medak has the camera study every face in the courtroom from Bentley’s perspective. At this moment, without a word being spoken, the outcome of the trial becomes clear to us, and we experience the emotions that Bentley himself must have gone through at this point.
We know that Bentley is found guilty; history tells us that he is hanged – yet it still comes as a shock when the sentence is pronounced. Medak’s use of camera angles and perspectives, manipulates our perception of the character of Bentley. He is pictured from below, descending the steps from the dock, head hanging in sheer disbelief. Medak creates an air of claustrophobia as Bentley struggles with his emotions as he returns to his cell.
The actor portraying Bentley, (Eccleston), is incredibly touching, as he shows Bentley taking uncertain steps towards forming his own identity, working to get over his shame. We want to cry out with the injustice of it all as the Bentley/Eccleston character – approaching the date of the execution – grows in inner strength, as he tries to ease his families’ sadness with jokes and good cheer.
Our compassion is further roused as we witness Bentley’s father, (Courtney), portrayed as a simple man, without education and lacking the skills of language, face the dilemma of trying to save his son’s life. There is also great emphasis on the vast amount of public support for Bentley, at the time. For example Medak uses the piles of mail that the family receives and the crowd outside the prison to further increase our hopes for his reprieve.
Finally, and in the knowledge that execution is inevitable, Medak shows the act itself to be terribly swift. The poignancy of his final moment is heightened as, unable to read and write, we watch Bentley dictate a letter to a guard that has become friendly towards him. The contents of the letter further reinforce our perception of his naivete and innocence. On his way to the gallows, this guard gives him a quick wink, encouraging him to be brave for just that bit longer.
Throughout the film, Medak uses the chimes of a clock to show the passing of time. Bentley is hanged to the accompaniment of chimes, which Medak uses throughout the film to signify an important point. In this case it signifies the end of Bentley’s life.
Peter Medak has successfully played with our emotions in the film, and it becomes clear that Bentley is innocent, from the opening scenes. Medak has merely built on Bentley’s innocence, which has provoked the viewers to be on his side, although Medak has clearly intended to exaggerate the film. In this case, it has helped make the film more marketable and has increased our feelings towards Bentley.
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