Labor Pains

When cinema buffs talk about their favorite movies from that brief period known as the “angry young man” phase of the British New Wave movement, one title is usually overlooked – The Angry Silence (1960) – and that might be due to the film’s more overt focus on labor unions, working conditions and corruption. Directed by Guy Green, The Angry Silence (1960) shares many similarities with others of its ilk with its harshly realistic depiction of a specific working class milieu, all of it captured in a gritty, documentary-like approach that was partially shot on location (Ipswich, Suffolk) using local nonprofessionals and real actors. 

Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough) and his wife Anna (Pier Angeli) share a private moment in Guy Green’s The Angry Silence (1960).

Despite this, the protagonist, Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough), differs from the other conspicuous nonconformists of such films as Room at the Top [1959], Saturday Night and Sunday Morning [1960], and This Sporting Life [1963]. Unlike them, Tom Curtis is not waging a private war against the British class system or rebelling against the status quo. He is a hard-working machine operator in a factory, trying, despite financial strains, to be a good father and husband to his family and wife Anna (Pier Angeli), who he has just learned is pregnant with her third child.

Based on an original screenplay by Bryan Forbes, Richard Gregson and actor Michael Craig, The Angry Silence is a scathing attack on both ineffective labor-management and the often unethical practices of trade unions. Yet the real focus of the film is how a decent working class bloke like Tom becomes a victimized pawn in the power struggle between management and the union agitators. When most of his fellow workers agree to quit and go on strike in what he feels is an unjustified action, Tom and a few others continue to report to work, putting themselves in physical danger for being “scabs.” Constant harassment eventually drives away all of the remaining workers except Tom who remains. After the situation is arbitrated and everyone returns to work, Tom is shunned by everyone, even his friend Joe (Michael Craig), as a “blackleg.”

Michael Craig (left) and Richard Attenborough (with raised hand) star in the British drama, The Angry Silence (1960), directed by Guy Green.

The relentless persecution continues and tabloid reporters that exploit his situation only make the situation worse, resulting in his small son being bullied and painted black at school. The film builds to a near-tragic climax in which Tom’s fate plays a crucial role in deciding the outcome of a local union rally intended to advance the cause of the behind-the-scenes agitator, Travers (Alfred Burke).

Bryan Forbes (left) and Richard Attenborough were actors who became directors and producers and launched their first film venture with The Angry Silence (1960), directed by Guy Green.

The Angry Silence marked the beginning of an amicable partnership between two actors, Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes. According to Forbes in Collected Interviews: Voices from Twentieth-Century Cinema (edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon), “The whole thing came about because Dickie Attenborough and I were both working as actors on a picture I co-wrote called The Baby and the Battleship [1956] directed by Jay Lewis, which was filmed on location in Malta. We shared a room, and although I had known Dickie for a long time, we were friends, but we had never really worked together before. We both decided that we’d come to a sort of crisis point in our careers: we weren’t getting anywhere. We felt that we weren’t less talented than some of the people we had to work for. So we decided to form a company called Beaver Films, and I wrote a script which never saw the light of day about a British army war cameraman…interesting script, but it never got filmed. And then I wrote a script called The Angry Silence.”

Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough) works as a scab during a labor dispute even though his co-workers shun and threaten him in The Angry Silence (1960).

Attenborough, in his biography co-written with Diana Hawkins, Entirely Up To You, Darling, described the difficult and challenging prospect of getting their film produced despite the fact that neither man had any experience in preparing film budgets, shooting schedules and the like. First they hired Jack Rix to be their associate producer (and he would serve in that capacity on the four films Attenborough and Forbes made together; the other three being Whistle Down the Wind [1961], The L-Shaped Room [1962], and Seance on a Wet Afternoon [1964]).

Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough, center) is caught up in a labor riot in the British drama, The Angry Silence (1960).

Attenborough said, “We then approached Guy Green, the perceptive director I’d met on Sea of Sand [1958], and, having secured his services, set about casting the three main parts. Kenneth More, then one of the biggest stars in the country, agreed to play Tom Curtis, the decent factory worker sent to Coventry by his workmates for crossing an unofficial picket line. The beautiful Pier Angeli, whom I’d met on SOS Pacific, was to portray Tom’s Italian wife and Michael Craig, joint creator of the film’s original storyline, signed up as his best mate, Joe. This was the package I took to British Lion in search of funding.” 

British Lion, however, had some depressing news for Attenborough and Forbes. In order to agree to back and distribute The Angry Silence, the filmmakers would have to reduce their predicted budget of 138,000 pounds to 100,000, which would require excessive script trimming and the ejection of several scenes crucial to the success of their movie. Attenborough decided that the only way they would realize their original vision for the film was to persuade everyone involved to agree to defer their charges in exchange for a share of any future profits. Amazingly, the proposal was accepted by all.

Popular leading man Michael Craig plays a pivotal role in the British drama, The Angry Silence (1960), directed by Guy Green.

“As a result,” Attenborough wrote, “I was able to go back to British Lion and tell them I’d taken them at their word, handing in a final budget that came in at an amazing 96,000 pounds. The board succumbed to this blatant arm-twisting and, having emerged from development hell triumphant, we immediately started to spend their money – hiring the crew, renting stage space and building sets at Shepperton. Then, two weeks before we were due to start shooting, disaster struck. With money going out at an alarming rate, a devastated Kenny More rang to say he had to pull out; he’d been offered real money to star in the prestigious Fox film, Sink the Bismarck! [1960]. We had to cast someone else in double-quick time and the only actor I knew for certain was available and wouldn’t cost a penny was me. This was not part of the game plan. However, I was the right age to play Tom Curtis and, of course, I knew the script inside out. The grand irony, totally lost on me at the time, was that Kenny’s last-minute withdrawal would turn out to be the most monumental blessing in disguise.”

Pier Angeli gives one of her best dramatic performances as an emotionally conflicted housewife in the British drama, The Angry Silence (1960).

Upon release The Angry Silence proved to be a box office hit as well as a film that aroused considerable controversy with reviews ranging from “one of the year’s best films” to vitriolic attacks on its tone and point-of-view by left-wing critics and activists. Attenborough noted in his memoirs that, “militant trade unions up and down the country were mounting mass demonstrations, demanding the film be banned. In Welsh valleys, where miners’ halls doubled as local cinemas, the National Union of Mineworkers voted overwhelmingly to deny The Angry Silence a public showing. I decided to drive to Aberdeen and tackle this head on. Never have I faced such an overtly hostile audience. But they were, at least, prepared to give me a hearing and, after I had talked for half an hour, explaining why we had made the film and what it was trying to say on a human level, pronounced themselves willing to sit through it. To my utter astonishment, at the end of the running they all stood up and cheered. Before I drove home, they presented me with the miner’s lamp which still occupies pride of place in our drawing room.”

Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough) retreats to the bar to ponder his career options in the labor dispute drama, The Angry Silence (1960).

The Angry Silence proved to be an international success for Attenborough and Forbes and director Guy Green; it received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, garnered four BAFTA nominations, winning one for Best British Screenplay, and also was a critics’ favorite at the Berlin International Film Festival with Guy Green receiving three of the four nominated awards.

Joe Wallace (Michael Craig) has a major disagreement with his pal Tom over a factory strike in The Angry Silence (1960).

The film continues to draw criticism and praise in equal measure. David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film appraised the film as “a portentous attempt to introduce realism to British features. In fact, the film is vulgar and sentimental…Attenborough had always believed more in content than style, in sincerity rather than intelligence. That film marked a new resolution to take himself seriously.”

Richard Attenborough and Pier Angeli play a financially strapped married couple facing a crisis in The Angry Silence (1960).

Nina Hibbin of The Daily Worker wrote, “You will not recognise this brand of trade unionism since it does not exist in Britain. It was invented by the film-makers. It is a lying travesty of the way British working men and women behave.” Most American critics, however, agreed with the view expressed by the critic from the UK’s Daily Mirror (a pro-Labor Party publication): “This is a brilliant and haunting picture dealing with the problems of the factory and the bench – which is where most of the British people work. British films sometimes make me despair. But now and then you get a beauty like The Angry Silence and you realise that deep in the heart of this anxious, disturbed industry there are writers, directors and actors who both know and care.”

Oliver Reed plays a thug for hire who harasses scabs with his cohorts in Guy Green’s The Angry Silence (1960).

Additional trivia: Look for Oliver Reed in an early role as one of the factory hooligans used by the union to harass workers who cross the picket line. Geoffrey Keen as Davis should also be a familiar face to moviegoers, having appeared in such big budget films as Doctor Zhivago [1965] along with appearances in six James Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], For Your Eyes Only [1981], Moonraker [1979], Octopussy [1983], A View to a Kill [1985] and The Living Daylights [1987].

Geoffrey Keen (seated) co-stars with Roger Moore in the James Bond action adventure Moonraker (1979).

After The Angry Silence, director Guy Green would tackle another controversial subject in The Mark [1961], the story of a child molester trying to readjust to society after being released from prison; Stuart Whitman received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in it. 

The Angry Silence remains missing in action on DVD or Blu-Ray in the U.S. but, if you own an all-region DVD player, you might be able to still purchase a PAL region DVD of it from the U.K. Studiocanal released it on DVD in 2016. 

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other websites of interest:



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