Thursday, March 2, 2017

Dirk Bogarde Cultivates the Seeds of Friendship in "The Spanish Gardener"

Dirk Jose?
British filmmakers practically cornered the market on quiet, personal dramas in the 1950s. A prime example is The Spanish Gardener (1956), an unassuming film that subtly hooks its audience with a tale about a shattered man, his lonely son, and a part-time gardener that changes their lives.

Harrington Brande (Michael Horden) is a minor, lifelong diplomat who learns in the opening scenes that he has been bypassed for a prestigious British consulate post. Even worse, his new job is replacing the man who got his desired post. Brande is an unhappy man who remains convinced his wife left him "without cause and on her own volition." His best friend (perhaps his only friend) knows otherwise. He recognizes that Brande is an insecure, needy man who wants love, but has trouble giving it. This is most apparent in his relationship with his young son Nicholas.

Michael Hordern as Brande.
Brande loves his son, but it's a selfish love. Nicholas is expected to spend time with his father--but it's difficult when Father travels frequently and is often absorbed in his work. Brande wants quality time with his son--but only on his own terms. The lonely lad needs a friend and finds one in Jose (Dirk Bogarde), a local laborer who has been hired to tend to the garden. Brande quickly grows to resent Jose and inadvertently begins to drive a wedge between his son and himself.

Although The Spanish Gardener unfolds like a stage play adaptation, it was based on a 1950 novel by A.J. Cronin. Best known for writing The Citadel, Cronin also penned The Keys to the Kingdom and The Green Years. The latter, which also features a young protagonist, shares a common theme with The Spanish Gardener. In The Green Years, an orphan overcomes an unsteady relationship with his grandparents (or de facto parents) by bonding with someone else (his great-grandfather).

There are also similarities to Enid Bagnold's later 1955 stage play, The Chalk Garden (which was adapted into a marvelous 1964 film starring Deborah Kerr). Both works use a weed-filled garden as an analogy for children that need caring in order to grow and embrace life.

One of the most recognizable faces in British cinema, Michael Hordern worked steadily as a supporting actor from the 1940s through the 1980s. He rarely got leading roles, but he more than holds his own in The Spanish Gardener opposite rising star Dirk Bogarde. Initially, Bogarde seems an odd choice to play a Spanish gardener (and he doesn't even try for a fake accent). However, his natural warmth shines through in his scene with young Jon Whiteley.

Jon Whiteley.
Whiteley gives an incredibly natural child performance. He only made five films, but one was an earlier pairing with Bogarde in the 1952 chase melodrama The Stranger in Between. He co-starred with Stewart Granger in the entertaining 1955 adventure Moonfleet. And he won an honorary Oscar for "outstanding juvenile performance" in The Kidnappers (1955).

Whiteley's parents ended his acting career at age 11. As an adult, he earned a Ph.D. from Pembroke College, Oxford, and became curator of the Christ Church Picture Gallery. When asked about his Oscar statuette in a 2013 Oxford Times interview, he said: "It is at home somewhere, but I don’t think it is a particularly attractive object. It has no great charm."

Hordern, Bogarde, and Whiteley are three excellent reasons to watch The Spanish Gardener. As a whole, the film lacks the mystery and passion that drives The Chalk Garden. Still, it manages to grip the audience's emotions and delivers a satisfying, well-told story.


  1. Ah, here's another "new" film you've introduced me to. This sounds like an interesting story, and just look at this cast! I'd love to see Michael Hordern in this role.

    1. I've liked Michael Hordern ever since I saw him in a sleeper called THE MISSIONARY in the early 1980s.

  2. Another gem from a favourite of mine, Philip Leacock. He directed Whiteley in The Kidnappers. Jon Whiteley and Vincent Winter, the stars of that film were given honorary Oscars.

    On March 13th TCM is devoting a night to Leacock and neither of these films are included. We have to start our own channel.

  3. Boy, are we on the same wave-length! Two days ago I was looking for a movie to watch and had my hands on The Spanish Gardener, which I had been wanting to see for quite a while...but instead I watched The Kidnappers ( another great film ). This was a wonderful read, and now I'll definitely be watching the film this week.

  4. "The Spanish Gardener" is such an underseen classic. It boasts a perfect cast with special praise going to Jon Whiteley for a wonderfully believable performance. This film is a gem and you have done an outstanding job reviewing it!