Directed by Ronal Neame
Screenplay by Alec Guinness, from the novel of the same name by Joyce Cary
Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, Renee Houston, Mike Morgan, Robert Coote
Who doesn’t love an artist? Everybody does, at least in some sense. Why else would we listen to music, and watch movies, and read books, if we didn’t love an artist. Or, at least love their art, which is arguably an extension of the artist. Which means I guess I have a little love for Mel Gibson being a shitbag, because I’m genuinely okay about his movies.
But, boy do we love movies about artists. Or, at least people love making movies about artists. On just visual artists alone – painters and sculptors – there’s Rembrandt, Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Basquiat, F For Fake, Pollock, Crumb, Frida, Big Eyes, Girl with the Pearl Earring, and more. Many more.
The clearest trope running from movie to movie – fiction or not – is of the tortured artist. And why not? Who wants to see a movie about the life of a perfectly well-adjusted artist working happily on their art? Or, to be clearer, where is the tension in that? Nowhere, as it turns out. But a tortured artist – you’d have to go out of your way to find something not to be dramatic.
What is different about tortured artists from movie to movie, though, is exactly what tortures them. In Lust for Life, it’s Van Gogh’s mental illness. In Frida, it’s her physical debilitations. In F For Fake, it’s society’s hostility towards homosexuality and crime.
Rare is the biopic, though, where the artist is merely tortured by his own desire to be an asshole. Or, to put it politically, his refusal to compromise. Rarer still is the tortured artist who isn’t all that tortured by what tortures him. Such is the artist we find at the center of The Horse’s Mouth.
What’s it about?
Gulley Jimson (Guinness) is a starving artist, but not without talent. Indeed, his paintings are in some demand and he has benefactors amongst the wealthy, titled class in England. Too bad Jimson is also a monumental asshole, and almost monumentally un-self-aware, so even his most-forgiving fans basically hate his guts. More than being an asshole, he has no interest in taking commissions unless he is given carte blanche as to what he delivers. At no point is he willing to commercialize himself, unless it fits his own particular vision. And really, so committed is he to his vision that he’s willing to break the law, and all sense of propriety, to achieve it. Which is all to say that Jimson is basically penniless, even though he is talented and fairly renowned in his own time. At the end of the day, Jimson is so dedicated to his own conception of art that he ultimately creates his greatest work on the side of a building, without regard to it being set for demolition, simply because the wall is an appropriate place for a mural he’s had in mind. In the end, Jimson proves himself the pure artist, destroying the wall – and his mural – himself.
How Was It?
First thing to know is that, from the plot description of The Horse’s Mouth, it’d be reasonable to think the movie is the depressing, tragic story of a principled artist who squanders his talent, and financial success, because he can’t get out of his own way. But The Horse’s Mouth isn’t all that interested in the drama of it; rather, the movie is essentially a comedy and, while it didn’t really have an abundance of laugh-out-loud moments, it does have a light touch and is essentially sympathetic to Jimson. The movie likes him. Which is the long way around of saying that, even as the audience knows Jimson is unreasonable, his aims are painted as understandable and we come to see him as being heroic. Or, more accurately, anti-heroic. Kind of like Han Solo with a paintbrush.
As Jimson, Guinness is fine. It’s not his best work, and he’s not as enjoyable here as he was in The Lavender Hill Mob – where he was exceptional – or as in The Bridge on the River Kwai – where he was again exceptional. That said, he acts the part well. It calls for him to be both charming and repellant, in roughly equal proportions, and Guinness achieves that, which is harder than it looks. After all, strike the wrong balance and Jimson is a buffoon, or a villain, or an object of pity. In many ways, Gulley Jimson allows us to see what makes Guinness a good actor. He can be performative – Jimson affects a growl when he speaks – but is also full of pathos, while never drifting over into cartoonish, or camp, in the way Bette Davis and Joan Crawford did in the psycho-biddy extravaganzas Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the like. But while Jimson allows us to see how Guinness is a good actor, it also serves as an example of why he doesn’t cast a very long shadow today, by neither giving in to being movie-star handsome, or playing it as camp.
Guinness wrote the script for The Horse’s Mouth, adapted from a fairly famous book in England, and in writing the script, Guinness clearly knew what he was doing. You see, the original work is purported to have ended badly for Jimson, playing up the tragedy of his life, but Guinness cuts all that, leaving the ending to feel upbeat, and almost victorious, even as we know that if Jimson ever wins, his victories will only ever be minor. Anyway, while Guinness would not be nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film, he was nominated for his script, eventually losing to Alan Jay Lerner’s script for the dreadful musical, Gigi.
Mike Morgan appears here as a young friend/acolyte of Jimson, who is always trying to help Jimson stay out of trouble, while also acting as something like an artist’s assistant. It’s a fine role, and Morgan does well in it. In his career Morgan apparently made two films total, both with Guinness: The Horse’s Mouth and All At Sea. You get the sense from the size of his role in this film that he was about ready to break out to bigger things, or at least keep expanding his acting work into the sixties. Except that was all cut short when, during production on this film, he took ill with meningitis and died. It’s sort of sad, really, to think of how a burgeoning little career was cut short by something so random. You can also see how his death compromised this film, given he inexplicably disappears from it several times for long stretches, and a few times his lines are dubbed by another actor.
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 I sometimes wonder if anybody would’ve ever made a movie about Jesus if he’d lived to be an old man and died after a solid life of preaching the word. Which raises the question: isn’t the story of Jesus really the story of his death and resurrection, and without that it’s just a movie about a boring preacher?
 He did have parts in two TV movies, and a couple TV shows.