Though my father owned a novelization of this, the film doesn’t have much of a reputation and, consequently, I missed out on it countless times on Cable TV (it’s a staple on TCM UK). However, ever since watching Joseph Losey’s similar but obviously superior KING AND COUNTRY (1964), I’ve wanted to check it out regardless…especially since both films feature Tom Courtenay in the lead role! The latter is a soldier who balks at doing his duty and, as per Military Law, a court-martial.is ordered which will decide his fate: in KING AND COUNTRY, Courtenay’s character deserted and is executed at the end (despite the valiant defense of Dirk Bogarde); here, he jeopardizes a mission by apparently losing his nerve – an act deemed reckless and which even leads to the death of a fellow soldier!
The opening moments of the film are rather muddled, but interest picks up once the titular character is arrested. To begin with, he’s brought in for questioning in front of his Commanding Officer – whom Potter astonishes by saying that his ‘cowardly’ reaction was due to his having had a vision of God! At this, the private is considered mad – so, his superiors think of passing him on to a psychiatrist; however, before taking this step, they request the intervention of a priest. The latter queries Potter about his idea of religion – to which the young man replies that he wasn’t a devout believer…so, why would God choose him as a vessel?
Incidentally, Potter’s interrogation is intercut with that (by a debuting Frank Finlay) of an injured local – the narrative is set in Cyprus – who had tried to warn his people of the approaching British troops; by the way, I’ll be watching soon another film dealing with the UK intervention in this country – namely THE HIGH BRIGHT SUN (1964) and which, coincidentally, stars Dirk Bogarde. Potter – a mild-mannered young man with an unhappy childhood – makes no discernible progress and, eventually, is assigned to a mental hospital; however, on the way there, he manages to escape. The CO, on his part, goes to see the Brigadier to seek his advise whether to proceed with the court-martial or not; being a soldier of the old school, he feels only contempt for Potter’s behavior and even asks his subordinate if Potter is a homosexual! At the end, Potter is returned to base (after he’s caught taking a bath in a lake) and receives a visit from the CO wishing him good luck for the upcoming trial.
Courtenay – who would eventually reteam with director Wrede for ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH (1971) – was a fine actor (albeit with a limited range) who emerged during the “Angry Young Men” era of British cinema; this film, as I said in my introduction, isn’t one of his more celebrated – having been superseded by the higher-profile (and somewhat more absorbing) KING AND COUNTRY. Having mentioned once more the connection with Losey’s film, I recall comparing that one back then to PATHS OF GLORY (1957); as for PRIVATE POTTER, it reminded me of the Richard Widmark vehicle I watched recently – TIME LIMIT (1957), given that both deal with the gathering of facts prior to a court-martial (rather than with the trial itself).