Libel (1959): Anthony Asquith’s Amensia Drama, Starring Olivia de Havilland and Dirk Bogarde

Anthony Asquith directed Libel, a British drama about amnesia and double identity, with all-star cast, headed Olivia de Havilland, Dirk Bogarde, Paul Massie, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Robert Morley.

Libel - 1959- poster.png

1959 Theatrical Poster

The screenplay was written by Anatole de Grunwald and Karl Tunberg from Edward Wooll’s 1935 play of the same name.

The Broadway play, which starred Colin Clive, was adapted for radio in 1941, with Ronald Colman, Otto Kruger, and Frances Robinson. Colman’s role of amnesiac WWI vet was similar to that he played in the 1942 Oscar winning “Random Harvest,” opposite Greer Garson.

hile travelling in London, Jeffrey Buckenham (Paul Massie), a World War II pilot vet from Canada, sees Baronet Sir Mark Sebastian Loddon (Dirk Bogarde) on TV, leading a tour of his ancestral home in England. Buckenham recalls that he was held in a POW camp in Germany with then Major Loddon, who the Germans captured during Dunkirk evacuation of 1940.

Buckenham is convinced that Loddon is Frank Wellney, a British actor (also played by Bogarde). Wellney and Loddon shared their POW hut in 1945 and bore uncanny resemblances to each other.

Buckenham confronts Loddon and writes to a tabloid newspaper, claiming Wellney has usurped the young baronet’s seat; that Mark Loddon is a “Bogus Baronet”. Loddon sues Buckenham and the newspaper for libel, even though his mind is battered by experiences during his 1945 escape, after which he spent six months in hospital, from when he has little memory.

During the libel trial, Buckenham and Loddon tell their versions of wartime imprisonment and their escape. Buckenham liked Loddon and despised Wellney. Beckenham saw striking similarities between Loddon and Wellney, culminating in Wellney telling Loddon he felt “more like one of the [Loddon] family”. In spring 1945, the three prisoners escaped their POW camp and headed towards the Dutch border, seeking advancing Allied forces. Loddon wore his British Army uniform and Wellney disguised himself in civilian clothes. One dark and misty night, having gone without food for days, Buckenham left Loddon and Wellney alone to steal food from a farm. As Buckenham returned he heard shots. In the mist he witnessed one man in British Army Battle Dress lying on the ground, apparently dead, and the other, in civilian clothes, running away. Although Buckenham was unable to get closer because German soldiers appeared the implication is Wellney fleeing the scene of Loddon’s murder.

During the trial it emerges that Loddon is missing part of his right index finger, just like Wellney. Although Loddon claims this happened when he was shot that night, Loddon allegedly also misses a childhood scar from his leg. Wellney’s hair was prematurely grey, as is Loddon’s now. Buckenham recounts how Wellney often asked Loddon about his personal life during their imprisonment; Loddon even joked that Wellney could pass for him. As evidence mounts, even Loddon’s loyal wife (Olivia de Havilland) begins to doubt her husband’s identity.

Hubert Foxley (Hyde-White), the defence barrister, produces a courtroom surprise. It turns out the third man in the British Army uniform seen by Buckenham did not die. Instead his face was horribly disfigured, his right arm was amputated due to injuries that night and his mind had become unhinged. He has been living in a German asylum since the war, known simply as “Number Fifteen”, his bed number. Foxley produces the man in court, including the Battle Dress worn when he arrived at the German hospital, which is of a British major, the same rank as Loddon. When the disfigured man and Loddon recognise each other, in a dramatic courtroom confrontation, Loddon’s memory starts to return.

Loddon’s barrister, Sir Wilfred (Robert Morley), puts Lady Margaret Loddon on stand, who now testifies that her husband is Wellney, the impostor, implying that “Number Fifteen” is the real Sir Mark Loddon.

Later, Lady Margaret confronts her husband, who in desperation walks the night trying to remember. Finally, seeing his reflection in a canal unlocks his memories. Wellney did try to kill him while his back was turned, but he (Loddon) saw Wellney’s reflection in the water and won their struggle. His memory returns of beating Wellney with a farm tool before switching their clothes and fleeing.

In court, Loddon remembers a keepsake hidden in his Battle Dress lining: a medallion his fiancée gave him in 1939 before leaving for France.  Finding it in Wellney’s possession, Loddon wins the libel case and his wife back. Buckenham and Loddon reconcile though Buckenham and the newspaper must pay damages.

The movie was not commercially successful at the box-office.

Dirk Bogarde as Sir Mark Loddon/Frank Wellney/Number Fifteen
Olivia de Havilland as Lady Margaret Loddon
Paul Massie as Jeffrey Buckenham
Robert Morley as Sir Wilfred
Wilfrid Hyde White as Hubert Foxley
Anthony Dawson as Gerald Lodden
Richard Wattis as The judge
Martin Miller as Dr. Schrott
Richard Dimbleby as Himself
Oliver Reed extra in courtroom visitors’ gallery
Sam Kydd Newspaper vendor

Oscar Context:

The film was nominated for the Best Sound Oscar Award (A. W. Watkin)


Directed by Anthony Asquith
Produced by Anatole de Grunwald
Written by Anatole de Grunwald, Karl Tunberg, based on Libel! by Edward Wooll
Music by Benjamin Frankel
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Edited by Frank Clarke
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: October 23, 1959

Running time: 100 minutes


TCM showed the movie on July 1, 2020.