The Shooting Party treads rather heavily in the footsteps of The Rules of the Game. Not surprisingly, it isn't nearly as good, but then, few films are. The story concerns a group of British aristocrats at their favorite recreation, slaughtering vast numbers of birds, just before World War I. Metaphors and portents of the imminent collapse of the old social order are rife, but fundamentally The Shooting Party doesn't have very much to say.
The Shooting Party will appeal to Masterpiece Theater fans. It has very nice production values (lavish Edwardian sets and costumes), muted sepia-toned photography, and a certain furtive nostalgia for the old days of aristocrats and servants. It is also well acted by a distinguished cast, the film's major asset. James Mason has the lead as a particularly civilized aristocrat, the host for the shooting party. Mason is excellent, in his final film role, as a tolerant man willing to accept that change is inevitable. He seems almost the only character depicted in the film who doesn't base his life on a belief that the current order is immutable. Edward Fox shows perhaps too much stiff upper lip as the cold master marksman. John Gielgud has a brief but splendid part as an animal rights activist who pickets the shooting party. He has a delightful scene with Mason in which they discuss where one can get the best bargain on having pamphlets printed up. This scene is one of the more insightful of the picture, particularly when counterposed with an earlier scene showing the general discomfort when Gielgud tries to peddle his doctrine to the lower classes in a local pub. Despite fundamental differences in some of their principles, perhaps the ones they would claim are most important to them, the hunting enthusiast and the animal rights advocate are really very closely allied, living off a society which provides them the wealth and leisure to pursue their avocations. If the film had more moments like this, it might have been more than a pleasant interlude.
Various subplots about infidelities, competition in the shooting, and whether a little boy's pet duck will be shot are not really very interesting, and, while the performances are, by and large, convincing, it is difficult to care much about most of the characters. The Shooting Party is leisurely paced, doubtless to suggest a less hurried time. In this it is successful, but the director, Alan Bridges, fails to find a way to make a slow story interesting. The final plot twist is supposed to be very significant, obviously, but Bridges fails to demonstrate its importance, so we see it as little more than a tragic result of poor sportsmanship. The last shot has a certain poignance, but the American Graffiti style ending revelations of the fates of the characters fails because we simply don't remember most of them by name, a major flaw in the script. Performances, photography, and production design are the worthwhile components of The Shooting Party. The Shooting Party is definitely for a select audience only.
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