I quite enjoyed it, but that's because I'm broken and had been expecting poison. I hated it in 1992. Nearly everyone hated it in 1992, despite the interesting exception of an American friend of mine. I remember it getting "worst film of the year" on Barry Norman's movie program, with Norman being overruled by the voting panel of all the other people who worked on the show. (He didn't like it either, but he'd thought another film was worse.)
The film's guilty secret though is that it's not that bad. It has specific problems, but it's okay. The actors are good, albeit often underused and miscast. There are some decent jokes. It's not offensive. (I repeat: it's not offensive. There are Carry On movies that I'd call disturbing.) If you know what you're letting yourself in for, this is perfectly watchable garbage and miles ahead of the more unpleasant series entries.
The fundamental problem is that its story doesn't work. The protagonists are either dull, miscast or unconvincing. You don't care about what they're doing, which even in theory is abstract and uninvolving because this is a Christopher Columbus movie and so his goal is basically "sail across the Atlantic". He does that. He lands in America. We don't care. Unfortunately we're only halfway through, so now we have to watch him and all the other undermotivated losers getting shafted by the locals. We still don't care. He sails home again. By this point we'll either have given up on the movie or we'll have shifted our sympathies to the Bilko-like native Americans, which is why I think it's significant that that Stateside friend of mine enjoyed the film. Good jokes won't overcome an uninvolving storyline.
Then there's the problem of the acting.
1. Jim Dale is the movie's trump card, but he's also its biggest problem. He's important because the producers needed a big name from the old Carry On films, yet most of them were dead. Dale though had been a key regular until he quit the series in 1969 and eventually emigrated to New York, so it was a major coup and massive for the film's credibility to have lured him back. Unfortunately he's miscast. I won't call him rubbish, but he's in the Sid James role and failing at it. He's said to be "full of shifty chicanery and subterfuge", but he's not. He's Jim Dale. He's still the same innocent he'd always been, except older. He sort of gets away with doing dodgy stuff, but it never feels organic to the character and so he doesn't drive the film as it needed.
2. Sarah Crowe. What's that accent?
3. Alexei Sayle isn't acting, but merely doing a comic turn. Admittedly he's endearing. He and Crowe are both likeable, but unfortunately they're supposed to be dangerous saboteurs and at that they never come alive. You don't care what they're planning or what they do.
4. Julian Clary. My sainted aunt. Did I just accuse Sayle of not acting? That was only true on a certain level, related to the creation of a dramatic character with a purpose in the story, whereas Clary isn't acting in any way whatsoever. He's not even trying to. He just reproduces his stand-up act, which is to deliver outrageous single-entendres in a deadpan style. This is both a triumph and a disaster. It makes him one of the film's most memorable characters, but it's another handicap for the story.
5. Peter Richardson as Bart Columbus. Who? Exactly. He's a key figure in 1980s British comedy as the driving force behind The Comic Strip Presents, but based on this it's no surprise that he never made it big as a performer.
These are big problems. However no one can be accused of lacking energy and they're all fun to watch (except Richardson) even when they're all wrong for their roles. Clary is amazing. Dale is giving it his all, even if he's missing the mark. Crowe's chosen accent is weird, but she made me laugh. "You must think of the Sultan." "I did. And there was no comparison." Besides, much of the rest of the cast is wonderful.
6. Maureen Lipman, Richard Wilson and James Faulkner are all rock-solid and far more memorable than their fairly scant screen time would suggest.
7. Rik Mayall in his one scene might have turned himself into the second-best Carry On player of all time, after Charles Hawtrey. (The quality I'm talking about here isn't the same thing as acting talent, obviously.) It's a tough call, but he's up there. I don't know if I'd be comfortable ranking him above Frankie Howerd and Leslie Phillips, but for my money his brand of outrageousness squeaks him ahead of even Sid James and Kenneth Williams.
8. Bernard Cribbins, Leslie Phillips, Jon Pertwee, June Whitfield, Jack Douglas and Peter Gilmore all return from the old days. They all deserved far bigger roles (even Douglas), but they're there and it's lovely to see them.
9. Larry Miller leads the Americans, in the nice touch of having the New World characters played by American comedians. I loved him. Having suffered through the film before, I knew that he was going to be more interesting to follow than the movie's ostensible protagonists... and if you're watching in that mode, he's excellent. He carries the movie. I loved the games the movie plays with civilised people vs. primitives. "Not bright, not bright." This material also has a bit of an edge, in that his sidekick would like to kill all the Europeans and Miller overrules him, insisting on peace, yet of course in real life the conquistadors would destroy civilisations and practically commit genocide. I enjoyed all that. It's got bite, it's funny and it's mildly subversive.
The script isn't as bad as you'd think. Of course it's a failure and was recognisably so even to the likes of Barbara Windsor. An awful lot of people rejected roles in this film. Also it was written by Dave Freeman, which should be a criminal offence. However Freeman was only given ten days to write the script (WHY????) and given that, I think he did okay. The plot doesn't work, but in practice most of that was down to the casting and Gerald Thomas's direction wasn't helping either. It has some good jokes. The historical setting is unusually detailed for a Carry On, so for instance Freeman's dug up a genuinely cool and funny fact about Torquemada.
Fundamentally, I think the central idea was bad. They chose Columbus because of the 500th anniversary of 1492, not because there's anything dramatic about "he sailed to America". Some ideas practically write themselves. This doesn't. Given his deadlines, for once I'm not throwing bricks at Freeman.
The movie's hidden problem, to be honest, was the weight of expectation. A new Carry On film, in 1992? My sister and I were excited, to name but two. Wild horses couldn't have stopped me going to see it. I entered the cinema with optimism and goodwill, which of course got napalmed.
I think I like this one. Really, truly and honestly. I hadn't been expecting to and before today I'd hated it, but this changed my mind. I'd never deny that it's rubbish, but its strengths and weaknesses fit rather well with Carry On traditions. The important thing has always been the pleasure of watching larger-than-life comic performers letting rip and that's certainly true here. Mayall and Clary are worth the entrance price on their own. Sayle is cuddly. The older generation is well worth your time. The Americans could be argued to be following in the footsteps of Phil Silvers. I'm rather fond of the rich, wide-ranging cast they managed to dig up, even if the movie was practically dead at birth.