I watched Sky West And Crooked, the 1966 film directed by John Mills and starring his daughter Hayley.
The story begins from the point of view of someone holding a gun in the peaceful English countryside.
It settles upon a young girl, who identifies the gun-holder as the young boy Julian. They chase off together, fall down together… and there is a shot. All around the village, the adults hear it and realise something is wrong, and chase out to the scene.
They finally arrive, aghast at what has happened, and we cut to the credits.
We cut to a panorama around the village and see that there is a scrap vehicle park and a gypsy encampment nearby.
We go to the cemetery where a teenage girl is putting flowers at a grave. We see this is the grave of Julian, and this is 7 years later, the girl Brydie he was pointing the gun at is now 17. We also discover she has no memory of the events at the start, apart from a scar on her right temple.
She is watched by Roibin, the young gypsy played by Ian McShane, but she cannot explain what she is doing.
Brydie’s mum has a drink problem and can’t get on with her daughter’s concern for burying dead animals.
She persuades the younger children in the village that all the dead animals deserve to be buried in the cemetery just like the human “deaders”. One of them brings a Sunday joint as a deceased animal that deserves burial. In addition to this project, Brydie also has troubled relations with the other adults who were present at the earlier shooting. The undertaker Mr Cheeseman, played by Norman Bird, isn’t happy about what his children say under her influence, and won’t talk about the past. Mr Dakers, Julian’s father, hates and blames her for what happened, although he follows the convention of not stating what happened out loud. The vicar Rev. Moss wants her to have the chance to grow and develop – he tells her that girls of her age are already getting married and having children, whilst she continues in a strange extended childhood. There is also Bill Slim, who is hostile to the gypsies along with general unfriendliness to Brydie.
The scenes with the children playing at burying the dead have a comical tone in their absurdities and earnest misunderstandings, but the overall mood of this film is dark and mournful. This is not at all a jolly sentimental celebration of the small village community, which can be mean, intolerant and cruel, and the crowds that rush out can as well be united in anger and violence as much as empathy and assistance. The local police are not so sympathetic to the lawfully resident gypsies – Roibin introduces Brydie to some Romani expressions, as the two outsiders bond together. Rev. Moss laments that there is little he can do to expand the spiritual lives of his congregation, who only need him for the formalities of births, marriages and deaths, and don’t hear what he might say about the overall pattern those events fall into.
Gypsies and their uncertain, untrusted status in Britain at the time had already been part of an earlier film with John Mills, the 1951 thriller Mr Denning Drives North. In that story, he played a well-off father concerned about the unsuitable young man his daughter was involved with. After accidentally killing him in a confrontation, he had a body to dispose of, somewhere off the edge of the highway… where a different kind of witnesses could find the evidence. But lucky for him, no one would ask or listen too closely to them.
Since we don’t see too much of the world outside the village, or any date on Julian’s gravestone, there is a question of what year this action is occurring in. The Mosses have a television set but we don’t see them watching it. Perhaps this is not so very far after the war, which is why young boys are fascinated by guns and frustrated that they missed out on the big adventure. Brydie’s suppressed memory represents the suppressed memory of that entire generation, scarred by decisions beyond their control and then put in to a new world where it is not done to talk about the bad things that happened. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that this is an early attempt, 20 years on, to begin to talk about that generational trauma. In 1968, B.S.Johnson edited The Evacuees, an anthology of memoirs about wartime evacuation. At the end he reflects on the “evacuated generation” he belonged to, born between 1924 and 1938:
The full cost of this evacuated generation’s suffering has yet to be counted: we have not yet come fully to power, and the next thirty years will be ours. Those who ordered our saving and suffering are already dead or dying.
The title “Sky West And Crooked” is an American expression for being not-right, disordered, and it is mentioned by Bill Slim early on as his description of Brydie. The American release of this film changed the name to Gypsy Girl. Taking the story and themes together, I think it just as well be called Weaponry Listens To Love; the song titles on that album ought to be in the soundtrack to this film.