It's one of the more famous Carry Ons, but I never used to like this very much. While rewatching the first half, I thought I must have been nuts. The second half brought me back down to earth, but this rewatch has still made me appreciate it more.
The film's problem is that like some other early Talbot Rothwell Carry Ons, the story doesn't stand up. Yes, I realise that this isn't a series where one's even meant to expect Shakespearian tragedy, but even so if you're going to have plotty things happening, then it might be nice if they did so in a vaguely plotty framework. That's not the case here. As we'd previously seen in Carry On Jack
and Carry On Spying
, the central joke is that our heroes are morons and every story development is the unintended consequence of stupidity. Admittedly this time we've got Marc Antony and Cleopatra scheming to bump off Caesar, but that doesn't amount to much since these two can't succeed at this clearly defined goal even when their adversaries are clueless, gullible losers. "Marc Antony tries to kill Caesar" is a good starting point for a story. I wouldn't say the same for, "Marc Antony would vaguely like to kill Caesar, but you'd never guess since his every effort in this direction gets foiled by morons who don't even realise what they're doing."
Admittedly that's the whole point of the joke. I just don't think it's a very good one. I'm also not wild about the film's tone. It's possible to make great comedies about attempted murder, but this is playing on pretty much the same frivolous level as any other Carry On film. Is it dark and cynical? Not on your nelly. This series could be disconcertingly casual about bloodshed, as also in Carry On Henry
and Carry On Don't Lose Your Head
. Sid James startles me sometimes. In those two films, he's cutting off heads without a care in the world. Here, he orders an assault on a village and the enslavement of its people without a second thought. This film is actively fighting against anything that might help you take it seriously, but Sid James still makes for a surprisingly convincing general. He's not trying to seem Roman in any way, mind you.
The story claims to be by Talbot Rothwell from an original idea by William Shakespeare, but more obviously it's a parody of the 1963 Burton-Taylor Cleopatra. Ironically that film was such a production fiasco that it killed the swords-and-sandals genre, but it did leave behind a bunch of abandoned sets and costumes. Guess what happened to them? Sid James is wearing Richard Burton's uniform. The producers also got successfully sued by 20th Century Fox for copying their movie's poster. The film certainly looks lavish, thanks to all those borrowed production values, but in fact there's only a relatively small plot overlap. If you don't count a quick cameo early on for establishment purposes, Carry On Cleo doesn't bring on Cleopatra until halfway through the film.
Arguably the most important characters aren't even the recognisable historical ones. Kenneth Connor and Jim Dale are playing Hengist Pod and Horsa, two Britons who start and end the film as neighbours in their British village. Mind you, in between they get captured, taken to Rome, sold into slavery, nearly killed in fights to the death and so on. They add a lot to the film, actually. It gives much more texture to have these two neanderthals bumbling around. You'll have to put up with a certain amount of historical licence when they're introduced, mind you. It would seem that 2,000 years ago, Britain was inhabited by cavemen and dinosaurs.
This brings me on to the good stuff, which would be the jokes. I can't think of any other entry in the series that even comes close to Carry On Cleo's variety and density of gags. Once or twice it was almost like watching Airplane! There's cheap innuendo, but also Shakespeare references and gags in Latin. There's the famous "infamy, infamy" line, which was actually borrowed with permission from Frank Muir and Denis Norden. Caesar's speech to the Senate is a nod to Churchill and Harold Macmillan. There's stupidity that wouldn't look out of place in a primary school panto, side by side with almost erudite parody and/or historical references. "I haven't had a chance to put on a lick of woad." I'm not normally a great fan of wordplay, but the richness of what we have here quite often had me laughing aloud. "If anyone in there asks who we are, say we're eunuchs." "Eh? Oh yeah. What have we got to lose?"
Still more bizarrely, even puerile and half-baked gags will often work anyway in the hands of the Carry On team. Could anyone but Charles Hawtrey have even contemplated the following?
- Hawtrey - Have you been out, then?
- Williams (who's been abroad for three years) - Out? I've only been to Spain, Germany, Britain.
- Hawtrey - Oh yes, of course you have. I forgot.
It would be generous even to call that joke bad. That's the kind of thing you write when you're ten. Nonetheless Hawtrey gets away with it. Unbelievable. Oh, and as with many Carry Ons, the BBFC cut out plenty of material that's now probably lost for good. In other words, this film in its original form was even dirtier and more gag-packed than it is already. Wow.
The biggest draw in the cast is of course Amanda Barrie, in the role of her career. I've never seen another actor come close to her genius at being deliciously empty-headed, while her average clothing level is half a swimming costume. The film also brings back Sid James, Jim Dale, the Kenneths (Connor and Williams), Charles Hawtrey and even Joan Sims. Haven't seen her in a while. They tried to get Bernard Cribbins, too. Sheila Hancock is Connor's nagging wife, Warren Mitchell plays half of Marcus and Spencius (sic) and Julie Stevens (Venus from The Avengers) wears a smile and a bikini. The film also shares at least one underclad girl (Sally Douglas) with Up Pompeii. Jon Pertwee isn't funny in his cameo, but there's at least one surprisingly heavyweight actor in Francis De Wolff.
There were a few British comedies set in ancient Rome made in the 1960s and 1970s, but if you don't count Doctor Who (The Romans) this was the first of them. Monty Python's Life of Brian is in a class of its own, of course. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum could almost be said to count, being American but with lots of British actors. However the most similar is Up Pompeii. Cleo is madder and sillier, but Pompeii breaks the fourth wall and has nudity. Overall I can't say I'm completely sold on this film, despite loving its first half. However I can see that this is a subjective reaction on my part and it's easy to see why the film's so well remembered. It's certainly the most quotable Carry On. If I watched it again, I'd so for three reasons: (1) Amanda Barrie, (2) the rest of the cast and (3) the jokes. I'm still a bit startled by the latter.