Bernard BresslawMargaret NolanAngela DouglasPeter Butterworth
Carry On Cowboy
Medium: film
Year: 1965
Director: Gerald Thomas
Writer: Talbot Rothwell
Keywords: comedy, Western
Country: UK
Actor: Bernard Bresslaw, Sydney Bromley, Peter Butterworth, Simon Cain, Tom Clegg, Brian Coburn, Gary Colleano, Larry Cross, Jim Dale, Angela Douglas, Sally Douglas, Alan Gifford, Peter Gilmore, Charles Hawtrey, Percy Herbert, Sid James, Davy Kaye, Arthur Lovegrove, Cal McCord, Ballet Montparnasse, Lionel Murton, Michael Nightingale, Margaret Nolan, Richard O'Brien, Jon Pertwee, Brian Rawlinson, Edina Ronay, Joan Sims, Kenneth Williams
Format: 93 minutes
Series: << Carry On >>
Website category: Carry On
Review date: 26 May 2009
I'm rather fond of this one. It's a surprisingly good Western, considering, and has a story that's considerably less bollocks than many of its better-regarded stablemates. They're doing the usual Carry On thing of having a hero who's pathetically useless even though everyone thinks he's unstoppable, but for once that's a good thing. You see, this is a Western. I love Westerns. The heroes might be pathetic, but the villains are surprisingly badass. Thus almost despite himself, even Jim Dale has no choice but to become heroic. The finale's going to be a gunfight at high noon and he's sticking around to defy the bad guys, even though he expects them to kill him. I liked that. The film even manages to pull off the cliche of teaching him how to shoot in two hours, which I wouldn't have expected in a million years. Basically they make a joke of him yet again. Somehow this works.
All this arguably makes Jim Dale's character braver than some Clint Eastwood type who's gunned down hundreds of men and rightly isn't expecting yet another bunch of losers even to slow him down. Now it has to be admitted that a die-hard Carry On fan probably won't be watching for the plots, but this is the first film in the series to come close to working as a proper adventure story. 'Jack', 'Spying' and 'Cleo' are deliberately going berserk with idiot plotting on a superhuman scale, while the run from Sergeant to Cabby are more down-to-earth but also more contrived and arbitrary.
The only slight fly in the ointment is the Sid James character, the Rumpo Kid. He's the villain. No, really. This isn't his usual lovable rogue, but a thoroughly bad man. He kills people without a second thought. He's a thief, a horse-rustler and the leader of a gang almost as bad as him... or at least that's the theory. Unfortunately he's still Sid James. The script gives him the usual lecherous gags and at times I wasn't sure whether the film was tring to turn him into the lovable rogue after all. Don't ask me how he should have played it. He's giving the part a bit more edge than usual, but it's clear that everyone basically wants to see him do his usual schtick. Note that he doesn't die at the end like a true villain should, but gets rescued and carried away on a horse to live to fight another day. I do like him, but I also think there's a bit of muddle about his character and this slightly unbalances the middle of the film.
His accent's regrettable, though. Did I mention that they're trying to do American accents in this one? To my surprise, this worked much better than you'd think. Sid James and that stagecoach driver are the only ones who actually assault the ears, although I'm sure I'd have a different opinion if I were American. Angela Douglas is probably the litmus test of how well you can accept the accents in Carry On Cowboy. You can tell that she's an Englishwoman trying to sound American, but to my ill-educated English ears she was mostly fine and at least she manages to sound natural about it. The worst thing that can happen with accents is for the actor to put so much effort into it that the rest of their performance goes down the toilet. This never happens here. Since it's a Carry On film, everyone's playing it so broad that the energy levels always stay up where they should be.
For example there's no comparison with the ludicrous accents in The Gunfighters, which appeared on British TVs the month after this film hit cinemas. There's a coincidence for you. Doctor Who and the Carry Ons both did comedies set in ancient Rome in 1965, then the following year did the same for the Wild West. Here they even get Jon Pertwee to play Sheriff Earp, albeit Albert rather than Wyatt.
The cast is... mmmm, Angela Douglas in the bath. Sorry, lost concentration for a moment there. I do like Angela Douglas, even though she's pretty much the only actress in the film who doesn't have cleavage you could stable a horse in. Joan Sims is positively heaving. This is a great film for girls in every way, except that Margaret Nolan is wearing too many clothes. However on a non-sexist level, we have Douglas playing Annie Oakley (i.e. the competent one) and Sims eating up the screen in one of her best roles as the firebrand Belle Armitage. She shoots Sid James's drink out of his hand, she punches people out of her bar and she's pretty much the strongest character in the film.
Unfortunately, to my dismay, Douglas isn't always very good. I do love her, but you can tell it's her first Carry On. At one point she has to sing a number in a mostly transparent outfit to a crowded bar, for which the poor girl was apparently terrified. Joan Sims had to give her two brandies and shove her on to the set. Unsurprisingly she's appalling in that scene.
Of the men, Kenneth Williams is oddly wonderful as Judge Burke, looking perfect as the stereotypical bewhiskered old trout and doing one of the best accents in the film. Apparently he based it on Hal Roach. Jim Dale gets his first proper leading role in a Carry On and as a reward is allowed to play someone who's English. He's a drainage engineer from Chipping Sodbury called Marshall P. Knutt. Yes, Marshall is his Christian name. You can see how that might lead to misunderstandings. Jon Pertwee's hamming it up as much as he did in Cleo, but this time it works. Oddly it's his height that makes the character convincing. Bernard Bresslaw plays a Red Indian. Everyone's getting into the spirit of things and helping to make this look like a proper Western, except for Charles Hawtrey as Chief Big Heap and with him we wouldn't have it any other way. Hawtrey minces through his scenes in his usual manner, but the film's built up enough Westernness that it can take this in its stride and turn it into a virtue. You accept that there's an effeminate Red Indian chief in Stodge City who talks like John Inman, simply because he's funny.
Richard O'Brien was apparently a horse-riding extra here, by the way, but I couldn't spot him.
There are two ways of viewing this film: as a Western and as a Carry On film. As a Western, I was impressed. They've put in every bit as much effort as they did with Cleo and Jack, so it looks the part. It even has a theme song! There's some day-for-night filming, but it's less obviously ludicrous than in a Hammer movie. It's a surprisingly violent film, but it's also appropriate for the film's tone instead of being disturbingly offhand as you'll get in one or two Carry Ons I could mention. There's certainly a lot of killing, most of it by Sid James, but on the other hand there's a solid plot reason why the bad guys don't perforate Jim Dale the moment he shows up. You can't go gunning down U.S. Marshals without bringing down the government on your head.
The finale even has a Sergio Leone shot! Gerald Thomas zooms in on Sid James as the last of his gang collapses dead beside him. It's atmospheric, so out of character for the film that it startled me. This was the year of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, while A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More had come out in 1964 and 1965 respectively. Admittedly the film's tone is more like Blazing Saddles than Unforgiven, but for a moment we get that stylistic flourish and you can drive yourself mad imagining what it would have been like if they'd shot the whole film in that style.
As a Carry On film too, I like it a lot. It puts lots of my old favourites into a story that more or less works as a straight film, although it would seem that this has made it a disappointment for people who prefer to see the usual gang never stepping a hair out of character, in a plot that exists only to get the hell out of their way. I can understand this. I love the Carry On team, but I also loved seeing them in a proper film. Admittedly you couldn't quite apply that description to Carry On Cowboy, thanks to the confusion over Sid James's character, but by the standards of this series it comes impressively close.