All the Kings Men – The Sandringham Company
Patrick Malahide played battalion doctor Capt. Claude Howlett in the 1999 television production of All the King’s Men. It is based on the WWI tragedy of the men from the King’s estate at Sandringham House. Back then it was common practice to keep men who knew and worked together in the same unit. In this case, they all worked at or lived in the surrounding village at Sandringham House. They were led by Captain Frank Beck (David Jason), who was the King’s land agent. They suffered massive losses leading to a legend that a supernatural cloud formed and carried them away. You can read more about the Sandringham battalion here.
Capt. Claude Howlett and Lady Frances
Patrick Malahide’s portrayal of the embittered and cynical but also brave and caring Howlett is an emotional study of contrasts.
Capt. Howlett is first seen at a formal dinner at the estate. King George V (David Troughton), after noticing the doctor help himself to another drink, points out it will be his second campaign. “Yes, Sir, for my sins. I managed to help put pay to the Boer.” The King asks him how should they put pay to the Turks. “Act quickly, Sir, under precise and detailed orders from a well-informed and farsighted high command, just as we did in South Africa.” There is more than a hint of rueful sarcasm there.
RF: I think it’s worth noting that even before they’ve all gathered for drinks, Howlett is always somewhat apart from the rest of the group as they tour the grounds (in their evening wear, natch). He also seems to be paying a tiny smidge of attention to Lady Frances and Lt. Radley, but we don’t find out why until later. Actually, it was so subtly done I only noticed it on re-viewing.
RF: You’re also right that Howlett’s barely masked cynicism makes him a notable exception while everyone else is expressing enthusiastic patriotism. He seems vastly more experienced (one could even say “jaded”) about the whole thing, saying all the right words but with a distinct edge to them. Also, Howlett is plowing through his drinks pretty quickly.
Admin: One person who takes a particular interest in Howlett is Lady Frances (Sonya Walger), Queen Alexandria’s (Maggie Smith) Lady in Waiting. She is engaged to 2nd Lt. Frederick Radley (Stuart Bunce). The engaged couple look outwardly perfect, but it is very obvious that Lady Frances and Capt. Howlett are immensely attracted to one another.
RF: I love this part of the scene. She sidles over to Howlett and the two of them very pointedly do not make eye contact at first, making it all the more obvious they’re not making eye contact – which in turn makes it even more obvious, even to the casual observer, that there’s something going on. There’s a ton of non-verbal communication. Can’t say as I blame Lady Frances for preferring the doctor; Radley’s quoting The Iliad marks him as more of the intellectual, philosophical type, whereas Howlett is more direct and down to earth.
Admin: That’s right. The forced way they stand slightly apart looking away from one another only heightens the attraction they clearly feel.
Admin: She asks him why he drinks. He asks her why is she a Lady in Waiting. “It is my occupation.” “Ditto the drink,” he quips. He tells her his wife Alice has left him. His expression is sad but, again, rueful. He seems to feel guilty. Suddenly he turns to her, “When do you marry, Lady Frances? Hmmm?” She tells him after the war. His response is oddly angry, “Howwww…..sensible.” It is a very intense moment; he’d love nothing more than to have Lady Frances for himself.
RF: Again, this whole bit is just marvelous. They’re having an incredibly intimate conversation while everyone around them is completely unaware, using the sort of verbal shorthand that established couples use. In fact, Lady Frances converses far more personally and deeply with Howlett than she ever does with Radley.
RF: Howlett’s referring to his wife as “Alice” again suggests their deep involvement; Frances is already well acquainted with his private life and marital troubles. Howlett does seem genuinely regretful that his wife has left him, but resigned; it’s left to the viewer to wonder if his wife found out about Lady Frances or if it was something else. He becomes more intense in an eyeblink, making direct eye contact with Frances, their faces inches apart as if they might kiss, when he asks when she’s to marry. Even his little “hmm?” adds a bit of an extra push. Obviously this is something he cares about a great deal; he’s telling her without telling her what he really thinks, calling it “sensible” when he really means it’s the worst possible thing. Or perhaps he’s obliquely suggesting she has less desire for Radley (if she has any; I rather doubt it) than she does for him. Radley is a “good” catch on paper and Howlett simply is not. But I completely agree: he’d far rather be with Frances himself than see her married to Radley.
RF: I also noticed Radley glaring at Howlett from across the room after Frances moves away and the talk turns to other things. Howlett, however, whose consumption of alcohol has been prodigious (his glass is perpetually empty), is swaying ever so slightly on his feet and completely unaware of it. Before they all go in to dinner, Frances asks Radley if they shouldn’t marry before he leaves, perhaps making a last ditch effort to evade temptation. Radley refuses, saying he doesn’t want to “make [her] a widow”, although Frances is willing to take the chance if she gets to be a wife first. But Radley refuses to budge, saying he’d prefer to wait until they have “a clear future ahead of [them]”. Hmmm, so the “sensible” decision likely wasn’t Frances’ in the first place.
The Wedding Party
Admin: There is another couple who decide not to wait until after the war, Sgt. Ted Grimes (William Ash) and Sandringham maid Peggy Batterbee (Emma Cunniffe). All attend the wedding, including Capt. Howlett who sits alone at the wedding party getting very drunk. Drunk he may be, but he is so raffish and attractive sitting there in a gorgeous black dress uniform smoking his cigar. A young man, Cpl. Herbert Batterbee (Ed Waters) notices him and asks if he can get him anything. Howlett fancies a “plump, little waitress…rather unclean.” Okay. Batterbee asks if he’d be any good to her in that state. He gets a sharp look from the doctor, “sorry, sir, it’s not my place…” I love the scene. It is darkly funny, and we get a good look at the debauched side of Capt. Howlett.
RF: Howlett starts out dashing (love his black dress uniform!) and sober immediately after the ceremony, but he’s soon three sheets to the wind. He eschews the dancing (I felt rather sorry for him sitting alone at that table) in favour of getting thoroughly drunk instead. Uhmm… interesting “fancy” he has, there… maybe that’s why he’s sitting alone. 😮 Batterbee’s response is hilariously perfect if totally ill-advised, and I love Howlett’s drunken glare in return (wonderful wordless acting by Mr. Malahide). He might be completely sodden, but he’s still an officer and he’ll probably remember everything the next morning, no matter how much he’s been drinking.
Admin: He looked so lonely sitting on his own amid the frenetic dancing and movement. His stare at Cpl. Batterbee is pure gold though.
Admin: This scene doesn’t involve Howlett, but it is crucial: A boy enters the pub in uniform. Pvt. George Dacre (Danny Worters) lied about his age to enlist. Capt. Frank Beck wants to tell the recruiting office, but the younger men rally around George carrying him on their shoulders. He will go to war. We don’t see what Howlett thinks of this just yet because he is sprawled out on one of the window seats.
RF: Yes, George enlists because everyone else has; he thinks it’ll be a huge lark and he doesn’t want to be away from his friends. Even rule-stickler Beck can’t bring himself to turn him in. Expectations are so optimistic (and unrealistic) that Mrs. Beck (Phyllis Logan, who appeared with Mr. Malahide in “The Italian Venus” episode of “Lovejoy”) even mentions they could all be back in six months. It makes for a chilling bit of foreboding to see them celebrating when you know what’s coming.
The Battalion Arrives in Turkey
Admin: The good times end and battalion comes ashore in Turkey. There is chaos on the beach full of random explosions, naked soldiers running into the water, and no one seems to have the faintest idea what is going on other than it is practically every man for himself. Capt. Howlett’s mildly offended look as a naked soldier runs past splashing water is funny.
RF: I wasn’t sure if he was offended or just mildly surprised, but it was certainly funny. 😉 Our first glimpse of the chaos on shore is through Radley’s eyes as he emerges from the nasty, dank, close quarters of their troop ship; it’s very obvious that this is not what he was expecting. Aside from being surprised at the streakers, Howlett seems very prepared, bringing a practical shooting stick with him in the landing craft. He appears to make a point of conserving his energy, sitting whenever possible throughout the rest of the film.
Admin: What isn’t so funny is the realization the lines of communication to the top are pretty much non-existent. It is exactly what the sardonic doctor predicted in his conversation with King. As Beck and the rest of the men seem confused and upset, Howlett calmly sits looking shaking his head slightly.
RF: Beck is expecting a great deal more orderliness and organization as well as clear direction from the top, despite the fact that Pierrepoint Edwards (Ian McDiarmid) tells him he’s been there for eight days already with no orders in the offing. Beck has a heavy reliance on hierarchy; he’s coming from an idealized, somewhat artificial environment where such a lack of order is intolerable and improvised thinking discouraged, whereas Howlett, who’s seen war before, isn’t surprised at all.
Redrawing the Maps
Admin: At camp, Howlett cares for sick men the best he can, but he is concerned with dysentery and they are low on water. A Pvt. Croft (Ben Crompton, aka Dolorous Edd from Game of Thrones, it would be Dolorous Edd that this happens to) catches Beck’s eye. Howlett says he has a touch of fever. Beck asks if it will spread. “Not unless the men’s sleeping habits have changed drastically,” intones Howlett cryptically. Finally he admits it is gonorrhea. Before leaving Liverpool, they both “had the same girl.” Howlett, however, went “armored.” Disgusted, Capt. Beck turns to leave, but Howlett is prepared to make good. He volunteers to do some scouting and correct the maps because the ones the soldiers were given are useless. “At least we’d know whereabouts in Hell we are.”
RF: More evidence of the disorganization and lack of supplies the Sandringham men are going to face. Earlier, Beck chastises Radley, who’s been surprisingly resourceful, for “liberating” some supplies through bribery, even though they badly need them. Beck insists there are “rules” to be followed and they should be taken back; he’s still trying to do things the “right” way, not realizing that no one cares if the rules are followed out here.
RF: I like how Howlett tries to hint at Croft’s problem (I didn’t recognize Dolorous Edd, but you’re right that he’d be the one it would happen to 😉 ) without having to come right out and tell Beck what it is. However, Beck is so relatively innocent – or perhaps “naïve” would be better – that he doesn’t pick up on it, so Howlett’s forced to be blunt. Beck’s first reaction is shocked surprise that such a “clean-living man” could catch the clap, then Howlett deliberately pushes him further by telling him he had the same girl, albeit “armoured”. He’s letting Beck know that his assumptions and idealism, whether about Croft or Howlett himself, don’t have any place out here. Beck’s used to dealing with his men in a fatherly sort of way in Sandringham’s controlled environment, not seeming to realize they’re adult men who might behave differently away from home.
Admin: The “Sandringham Estate doesn’t cater for every recreational need,” didn’t help matters either. 🙂 Though, Capt. Howlett was being very honest and forthright and took his share of the responsibility. He could have easily covered up his involvement.
Admin: The reconnaissance goes wrong when they are attacked. Capt. Beck hears a gun shot and runs over, he sees a bloodied hand rise up and point in the direction where a Turkish shooter is hidden. The hand belongs to Howlett. His other hand is clasped around the mouth of a wounded Pvt. Dacre, the boy who lied about his age. The lad only needs stitching, but he is terrified.
RF: Here’s where we see Howlett’s experience coming out. He knows to be stealthy when there’s a sniper in the vicinity (something Beck doesn’t seem to quite realize, since he charges in until he sees Howlett’s bloody hand), and he also knows the best way to keep Dacre safe is to keep him quiet and still. I was a little surprised he took Dacre with him in the first place, but maybe he figured reconnaissance and mapping would be mostly harmless. Howlett also has to drag a shocked and fascinated Beck away from the Turkish sniper he’s (Beck’s) just shot – possibly the first man he’s ever had to kill.
Admin: Howlett probably thought it would be safe and just wanted to involve Dacre in something he might enjoy. It would have been nice to have had a scene where it was agreed Dacre would accompany him.
Admin: Beck tells Howlett it was heroic what he did for Dacre and wants to put him up for a medal. Howlett will have none of that. “I am here to get the clean bullet through the brain that I don’t have the courage to put there myself.” He says this while tipping a bit of whiskey in Beck’s mug, which makes it seem a much friendlier moment.
RF: These two really do embody an ongoing conflict between realism and idealism, or experience and naïveté. Howlett has no interest in medals (although he already has a few, as we see in the wedding scene) and is there fully knowing it’s semi-suicidal, whereas Beck is concerned with official accolades, which he thinks he’ll get by following “rules” and doing things the “right” way. But you’re right that Howlett tries to ameliorate the sting of his words with the whiskey, or possibly he’s simply giving Beck a drink because he might still be in shock after shooting someone.
Admin: Howlett complains about the terrible conditions, no water or supplies. Beck says, “I allow that some conditions don’t meet expectations.” “Expectations? I left my expectations with the Boers in South Africa. A British concentration camp where I was supposed to keep the civilian population alive….women, children…and where I failed for lack of support.” Now we know a lot about Capt. Howlett and why he is as he is. It is also clear that he is an extremely brave man who takes his duty of care seriously.
RF: This is a marvelous scene, so well acted by Mr. Malahide. You’re right, we learn so much about Howlett in just a few short sentences. He doesn’t give us a ton of detail, but we don’t need it. His words provide a terse yet wrenching glimpse of the horrors he went through under the Boers; we can see that his idealism was burned out of him long ago. He also knows he’s signed up for what might be more of the same in Gallipoli. Howlett almost growls his words into Beck’s ear, restraining his emotions even as he tries to knock some sense into Beck. But as you say, we also see how incredibly committed Howlett was and is to his job and how much he cares, despite his self-destructive tendencies.
Howlett Learns Lt. Radley’s Secret
Admin: They are planning for a big push and Beck reads commands: “White patches will be sewn on the backs of officer’s tunics so that the men will recognize them in the field.” Howlett snorts with laughter. Beck tells Radley to take Grimes and another man to flush out some Turkish snipers before the push. Radley immediately suggests Pvt. Needham (James Murray), a groomsman at Sandringham and a man he loves. Howlett realizes that Lady Frances’ fiance is gay, but he doesn’t say anything. Instead he tells Beck about their first case of dysentery, the disease he’d been dreading, “so, if the Turks don’t get us we could die in our own shit.”
RF: I thought it was interesting that Howlett was the only one to realize Radley had feelings for Needham, but he’s the least conventional thinker out there and keenly observant, so it makes sense. He probably also knows that Lady Frances has no idea.
Admin: Tragically, one of the snipers kills Needham. Radley insists on a funeral and he is given one. Grimes is missing.
RF: Radley sees Needham go down when they’re attacked and freezes completely. He has no idea what to do. They’re all so inexperienced in any kind of combat that they’re essentially sitting ducks; it was an exercise in futility for them to go out there like that in the first place. In the mayhem, Grimes briefly captures one of the snipers only to discover she’s a woman. Keyed up on adrenaline, he shockingly attempts to rape her as a sort of revenge – additionally shocking because up until now, we’ve only known him as a very good-natured, steady man, touchingly in love with his new bride. Then he suddenly stops and allows her to go free, perhaps realizing at last what he’s about to do. But the fact he attempts the rape at all shows what Beck’s men can be capable of in extreme situations, far from Sandringham’s boundaries. Unfortunately, as he’s letting her go, Grimes is shot and severely wounded by yet another Turk before being left for dead by Radley.
The Final Battle
Admin: Beck, realizing the upcoming battle will be hopeless, asks Howlett if Division could truly mean for them to just walk to their deaths. Howlett: “You’ve always trusted the judgement of your betters, haven’t you, Frank? That’s fine for Sandringham…or Paradise,” foreshadowing the legend to come.
RF: Not only foreshadowing the legend, but emphasizing Beck’s continuing reliance on hierarchy and the status quo, which doesn’t apply in this sort of combat. Howlett knows this only too well, but Beck has never lived any other way. You could also say he’s foreshadowing their eventual (true) fate as well.
Admin: Before the men go to battle Howlett sees young George Dacre trembling with fear and grasps his shoulders. “Alright, lad, I’ll be with you.” As he turns to walk away, Radley stops him, “my fiance admires you, Doctor.” If they live, Radley will break the engagement and asks Howlett “to be kind to her.” Howlett’s response is heartbreaking, “you almost make me want to live.” As they shake hands Howlett tells Radley he is sorry about Needham and they embrace.
RF: Howlett was a bit perfunctory when he treated Dacre’s wound earlier, perhaps trying to distance himself, but he’s moved to show compassion when he sees how frightened Dacre is. For an extra little turn of the knife, we see that Dacre’s still bandaged under his helmet. Howlett tries to provide a small amount of reassurance and comfort to someone who’s still only a boy, going into an unthinkable situation. It’s not much, but it’s something.
RF: Howlett also seems surprised when Radley accosts him, replying “I can’t think why,” with self-deprecating puzzlement when Radley says Frances admires him. He might be a bit surprised that Radley even knew about their relationship in the first place, never mind that he’s offering to break the engagement, leaving Frances free to go to Howlett. He also shows compassion and understanding to Radley when he consoles him about Needham; he’s the only one here with any understanding of what Radley truly lost. Totally agreed that Howlett’s response to Radley’s offer is heartbreaking; we really badly want him to survive this if it’s at all possible so he might find some happiness at last.
Admin: Then they go into battle and it is so horrible and bloody with mass explosions and bullets; men are dying everywhere. Howlett is doing the best he can getting men on stretchers, but it is a lost cause. Then he gets caught in an explosion. He writhes about in agony reaching for his gun, when Capt. Beck sees him and does the compassionate thing by handing it to him. Howlett takes his own life.
RF: We actually get two versions of the final battle: one in which the men disappear almost soundlessly into the mist and we know nothing further; then later, the more realistic version in flashback as Pierrepoint Edwards discovers what actually happened.
RF: The scene inside the cloud is indeed awful and bloody and none of them, save perhaps Howlett, are in any way prepared for it. And Howlett’s struggling too; he has only two stretcher-bearers and is woefully under-equipped. But once he’s caught in the explosion, he, of all people, knows he’s done for. Desperately seeking the cleanest, fastest way to end his life, he gives Beck a look of gratitude when Beck hands him the gun. It’s awful, tragic, and heart-wrenching, yet I was still a tiny bit glad that at least he didn’t suffer too long. Very hard to watch.
Admin: Grimes survived because he had been taken and patched up by the Germans during Radley’s and Needham’s sniper mission. He goes back to Sandringham and tells them about the cloud legend. Queen Alexandria asks Rev. Pierrepoint Edwards what he’s heard, as he had been to Turkey on a fact finding mission. Although he saw evidence of the slaughter, he backs Grimes’ story, “I’m very much afraid, ma’am, that I have nothing to add.”
RF: Pierrepoint Edwards evidently believes it would be kinder and less shocking for the Queen Mother not to learn the truth, even though she specifically sent him to find out what had happened. I understood why he didn’t tell her, but I didn’t agree with it. Grimes has also heard the story and seems to take great comfort in the thought his friends were saved by supernatural forces. It reminds me a bit of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend“; many people would rather hear and perpetuate a story because the truth is too disturbing.
Admin: The film closes with another scene of the men going into battle, but this time the mysterious cloud appears and they disappear.
RF: I watched that a couple of times and felt terrible every time. So sad.
Admin: All the King’s Men is an excellent film, but not an easy to watch simply because it is so heartbreaking. Mr. Malahide’s performance is wonderful and he creates a character whose elicits pity and admiration. He is the only one who truly and absolutely understands exactly what he is getting into, but despite it all he never stops trying to do his very best for the men who need him.
RF: Agreed that it’s an excellent, thought-provoking, yet extremely hard to watch film. Mr. Malahide is outstanding as Captain Howlett; he’s unconventional and cynical with a wry sense of humour, yet he’s living with demons he doesn’t like revealing. Mr. Malahide gives us the portrayal of a man who’s been deeply scarred by what he’s seen and had to do who goes back into war knowing he might have to do it all over again. He also shows us Howlett’s hidden reserves of courage and compassion. Lady Frances saw much more than he did when she said she admired him, and so do we by the end.