The Horse's Mouth (film)

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The Horse's Mouth
The Horses Mouth poster US.jpg
The Horse's Mouth US Theatrical Poster by Nicola Simbari
Directed byRonald Neame
Screenplay byAlec Guinness
Based onThe Horse's Mouth
1944 novel
by Joyce Cary
Produced byJohn Bryan
Ronald Neame
StarringAlec Guinness
Kay Walsh
Renée Houston
Mike Morgan
Robert Coote
CinematographyArthur Ibbetson
Edited byAnne V. Coates
Music byAdapted from Sergei Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kijé"
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors
Release date
11 November 1958
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$1 million (est. US/Canada rentals)[1]

The Horse's Mouth is a 1958 film directed by Ronald Neame and filmed in Technicolor. Alec Guinness wrote the screenplay, which was based on the 1944 novel The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. Guinness also played the lead role of Gulley Jimson, a London artist.


Eccentric painter Gulley Jimson is released from a one-month jail sentence for telephone harassment of his sponsor, Mr. Hickson. Nosey Barbon, who wants to be Jimson's protégé, greets Jimson at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, but Jimson tries to discourage Nosey from pursuing painting for a living. Jimson goes to his houseboat, which his older lady friend Coker has been maintaining in his absence.

Jimson tries to borrow money from Hickson and Coker. Jimson and Coker later visit Hickson to secure payment for Jimson's artwork. Jimson tries to steal works back from Hickson's place, but Coker stops him. Hickson calls the police, but Jimson and Coker escape.

Jimson responds to a note from A. W. Alabaster, secretary to Sir William and Lady Beeder, who are interested in acquiring Jimson's early works. Jimson and Coker try to secure one of those works from Sara Monday, Jimson's ex-wife, but she turns them down.

When Jimson visits the Beeders, he sees a blank wall in their residence and is inspired to paint The Raising of Lazarus. He learns that the Beeders are leaving for six weeks and takes advantage of their absence to execute the painting. An old artistic rival, Abel, intrudes on Jimson to bring in a large block of marble to fulfil a sculpture commission for British Rail. Jimson pawns the Beeders' valuables, and Abel and Jimson accidentally destroy part of the Beeders' floor when the marble is dropped. After Jimson has completed the painting, the Beeders return. Shocked by the painting, they fall through the hole in the floor.

Jimson returns to his houseboat and finds Coker there. She was fired from her barmaid job after the press reported the incident at Hickson's residence. Later that evening, she surprises Jimson with the news that Hickson is dead and that he has bequeathed his collection of Jimson's works "to the nation." Those works are displayed at the Tate Gallery, which Jimson visits. In the long queue for the exhibit, Jimson sees Sara. He again attempts to regain the piece in her possession, and she gives him a roll tube. When he returns to the houseboat, Coker and Nosey find that the roll contains only toilet paper. Nosey follows Jimson to Sara's house, where Sara is knocked unconscious when Jimson grabs the painting.

Jimson and Nosey seek shelter in an abandoned church. Jimson is immediately inspired to execute his largest work, The Last Judgment, on a blank wall. Learning that the church is to be torn down within a fortnight, Jimson, Nosey and Coker recruit local youngsters to help complete the painting. A local council official overseeing the building's demolition objects to their activities. Jimson recruits Lady Beeder to participate. The painting is completed on the scheduled day of demolition. After the demolition crew warns everyone to stand back, Jimson suddenly drives a bulldozer through the wall, feeling it necessary to destroy the work before anyone else did. Jimson runs back to his boat and sets sail down the Thames before Nosey and Coker can stop him.



The film's Academy Award-nominated screenplay, written by Alec Guinness, generally follows the book upon which it was based. However, the screenplay focuses on Jimson's character and the life of an artist rather than on the social and political themes that the book explores. It also deviates from the book's ending, in which Jimson suffers a stroke and is no longer able to paint.

The expressionistic paintings featured in the film are actually the work of John Bratby, a member of the English provincial realist artist group known as the kitchen sink school. To prepare for the film, Guinness observed Bratby at work in his home studio.[2]

Mike Morgan fell ill with meningitis shortly before filming ended and died before its completion. As a result, another actor dubbed many of Morgan's lines.[3]

Director Ronald Neame visited author Joyce Cary, who was dying from bone cancer. Cary requested that his son Tristram, who had previously scored Guinness' The Ladykillers, be contracted to write the film's score. Neame conveyed to Tristram Cary that he wanted "something jaunty and cocky" in the manner of Sergei Prokoviev's Lieutenant Kijé.[2] The score was arranged by Kenneth V. Jones.

Critical response[edit]

The film, which received rave reviews in the UK after its Royal Command Performance,[4] has been named by one critic as "[q]uite probably the best film ever made about a painter."[5] Scott Weinberg of the Apollo Guide described Guinness’ performance as "a devilishly enjoyable character study" that "ranges from 'mildly dishevelled’ to 'tragically exhausted’" and also praised Neame's direction.[6] A contemporary Film Quarterly review by Henry Goodman identified the film's predominant theme of the artist as destroyer and praised the Gulley Jimson character as "a fine realization of the absurdities as well as the idealisms of the creative life."[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
  2. ^ a b Neame, Ronald, and Barbara Roisman Cooper. Straight from the Horse's Mouth, Volume 98 of Scarecrow Filmmakers Series. Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. 160–1.
  3. ^ Matthew Sweet (19 October 2003). "Ronald Neame (2003 interview at the National Film Theatre)". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 14 March 2008. Retrieved 11 January 2008.
  4. ^ "'Horse's Mouth' Wows Royal Film Gala". Variety. 4 February 1959. p. 3. Retrieved 4 July 2019 – via
  5. ^ Rotten, The Horse's Mouth (1958), Ken Hanke – Mountain Xpress (Asheville, NC)
  6. ^ The Apollo Guide, "The Horses Mouth" review, by Scott Weinberg Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Goodman, Henry (Spring 1959). "Film Reviews: The Horse's Mouth". Film Quarterly. 12 (3): 44–46. doi:10.2307/3185983. JSTOR 3185983.

External links[edit]