Overlooked & Underseen: Let Him Have It (1991)
The holidays are over, and it’s a new year so it’s time to get back to my little series on post-war British crime films inspired by my watch of the UK show Murder Maps. My first piece in the series focused on 10 Rillington Place and the serial killer John Christie. The next two films deal with the British justice system and how shitty it was to two different people. First up, is Let Him Have It, the story of Derek Bentley starring the fantastic Christopher Eccleston.
Derek Bentley was a 19 year old man in 1953. He’d been in trouble when he was younger for stealing, and spent three years in the Kingswood Approved School. He was eventually released to live back at home with his parents, William and Lillian (Tom Courtenay and Eileen Atkins), and his sister Iris (Clare Holman). Derek pretty much became a recluse. He stayed indoors and played with animals, or tinkered with things in his dad’s shed while listening to music. Iris eventually coaxes Derek to start getting out of the house with her. When he was 18 and went to sign up for national service, he was tested and deemed “mentally substandard”. He was found to have epilepsy. He was also labeled “illiterate” and was told he had a mental age of 10. Bentley had several developmental disabilities and was never given help for any of his issues.
One day, Christopher Craig (Paul Reynolds), a 16 year old wanna-be gangster, befriends Bentley. Craig and the rest of his crew run around town, carrying guns, acting like the American gangsters they see in the movies. They steal and cause trouble wherever they go. Bentley goes along with gang although he doesn’t carry a gun, he has a knife. He’s happy to be accepted by the group and is easily persuaded to do whatever he’s told to do by Craig. One night in December of 1952, Craig gets Bentley to go with him to rob a confectionary factory. They are spotted as they are climbing onto the roof and the police are called. The decision to go along with Craig on this outing turns out to be a fatal one for Bentley.
While up on the roof, Bentley is nabbed pretty quickly by police. He doesn’t put up a fight, he does exactly as he’d told by the policeman who apprehended him. Craig, on the other hand, does not go quietly. He starts shooting his gun as a warning for the police to stay away. Bentley, wanting him to stop shooting, yells to Craig “let him have it”. Craig fires his gun again and hits a police officer, killing him. Those words Bentley shouts come back to haunt him at trial.
Both Craig and Bentley are charged with murder, even though Bentley didn’t fire a weapon. It is clear Bentley should never have been tried at all, he was not fit to stand trial but that didn’t matter to the prosecution. His words “let him have it” come in to play. The prosecution claims he was saying “shoot him”, Bentley’s defense argues he meant “give him the gun”. Both are found guilty of murder but because Craig is only 16, he isn’t sentenced to death but Bentley was. He was sentenced to hang for crime he should never have been charged for to begin with.
There was public outcry at the sentence. Bentley’s family does everything in their power to try to have the sentence overturned. They get Parliament involved but it turns out they can’t debate the issue until after the sentence is carried out. The Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, could’ve overturned the conviction but didn't... so on January 28th, 1953 - barely a month after being convicted of murder - Derek Bentley was hanged. He was 19.
I rewatched the movie for this column and even though I knew the outcome, I was still left bawling my eyes out during the last scenes. The terrible miscarriage of justice done to Derek Bentley is an awful thing to witness, even just by watching this depiction of it. Christopher Eccleston does a tremendous job as Bentley. This was the first movie I ever saw him in and wow, he’s such an amazing actor. Tom Courtenay and Eileen Atkins are also great here. Their performances are simply heartbreaking. Their scenes with Eccleston in jail, awaiting word on whether his death sentence will be overturned, are some of the most heart wrenching I’ve ever seen. What an emotional wallop this movie packs.
Peter Medak (The Changeling and The Krays) does a good job with this period piece. There’s nothing flashy about the movie, he just tells Bentley’s story from the point of view that he was served a raw deal by the government and killed for no good reason. I wouldn’t watch this if you’re in an emotionally fragile state. It’ll make you both sad and angry.
Let Him Have It is available for rental on Amazon Streaming.