This is where the Carry On films died. It's not actually the last one they made, but it failed so badly at the box office that some cinemas pulled it after only three days. The only ones after this would be the That's Carry On
I've always had an affectionate tolerance for it, but I can't begin to pretend it's good.
It's harking back to Carry On Sergeant
, with Kenneth Connor and Windsor Davies trying to assert themselves over the worst soldiers in the British Army. The twist is that it's a mixed battery. Half the men are women, so of course (this being a 1970s Carry On) everyone's having sex all the time and there are gags involving toplessness and knickers. Theoretically it's set during World War Two, except that I'd completely forgotten this because the film mostly appears to do so too. The war? A million miles away. The soldiers? Never give it two thoughts.
What's good about the film, I think, is that underneath, it's solid. The set-up is fine. I didn't hate it. It's not offensive, disturbing, misogynistic, pointless, leering or hateful, which is an improvement on certain Carry Ons I could mention. The comedy has a simple dramatic structure (layabouts vs. authority) that I remember appealed to me as a child and you could almost imagine it as a strip in the Beano. Come to think of it, it would have probably worked better in that medium.
Similarly the cast isn't bad. Carry On fans whinge that it's missing all the franchise's famous faces, obviously, but I still quite liked them and in any case the film's worst performance by miles is from the longest-running Carry On regular of them all (Kenneth Connor). Windsor Davies in particular is magnificent. Yes, obviously it's just him playing yet another sergeant-major, as per It Ain't Half Hot Mum, but that's not a problem in the slightest because he's superb at it. I adored him. The lovable sadism, the surreal grammar and mispronunciations... "in ten minuets", "I is very worried", etc. He nearly carries the film, which is a superhuman feat considering the dead weight of everything else, and as an extra bonus there's even Melvyn Hayes as one of his soldiers. It's an It Ain't Half Hot Mum reunion! Okay, a very small one.
Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and pretty much everyone else are absent, obviously. James actually died a few days before filming began, although he hadn't been going to be in it. However Davies has more than enough star power to make up for them, while Patrick Mower is always lively, Peter Butterworth gets a near-cameo, Peter Jones shows up and even Jack Douglas and Joan Sims are used quite well.
The film has three failures, I think... Connor, the script and the script.
1. Connor is movie-killingly awful. I've never been a huge fan of his, but until now he's usually been okay. He's a likeable chap who's always full of energy and giving 100%, but he's not a leading man. He can't drive a scene or convince you to take him seriously as a dramatic force and/or obstacle. He's had his moments as a supporting player, but here he basically had an entire film to make his own and he muffs it. It's a good performance in all the obvious ways and there's a sense in which I quite liked him, but he's not fulfilling his dramatic function. Do you care what his character does? No. Do his actions seem to matter? No. Is he ever funny, either when his plans succeed or fail? No, which is because of those other points.
2. The script is muddled. The first half has Connor and Davies as the protagonists, struggling to tame their slovenly men... then the second half drifts almost without noticing into the opposite situation, with Connor being likened to Hitler and the layabouts suddenly being the heroes. The latter works better than the former, I think, largely because Connor's performance works better as the antagonist, but I still don't get the impression that the scriptwriters had much of a plan.
3. The script isn't funny. This is the big one. It has no jokes. It just does Carry On stuff, in the optimistic assumption that we'll laugh. It's kind of painful. I'm fond of this film, largely because of good childhood memories of it. I was sitting there, full of goodwill and cheering it on, in the hope that it would think of an entertaining use for its premise and characters. Alas, it doesn't.
However all that said, the film's not a force for evil. It's merely rubbish, in a hopelessly uninspired kind of way. It feels like a contractual obligation, not a movie.
There are still small things to like about it, though. The score is jaunty, fun and one of the few I've ever noticed in a Carry On, probably because their usual composer, Eric Rogers, refused to work on the film when told his orchestra would be cut from forty to twenty musicians. He even suggested someone who'd be a good replacement, but then came back two years later for Emmannuelle
There's also nudity, which has been put back for the DVD release. The original cut of the film got a commercially inadvisable 'AA' certificate, so they eventually released an 'A' cut with less flesh. Carol Hawkins had even turned down the film due because of the nudity. Obviously I'm not going to complain, although to be honest it's nothing to write home about and it's surreal to think that this was any kind of issue in 1976. The main thing that strikes me about it, for what it's worth, is that the "topless girls on parade" scene would have been funnier if they'd had everyone involved instead of their actual sad-looking bus queue. Only five actresses take part, which I think diminishes the joke.
I don't hate it, but I'd have trouble justifying that. There really isn't much to commend this one. The likes of Kenneth Williams and Penelope Keith rejected roles in it, which was wise of them, although Williams wouldn't seem to have been judging on quality grounds since he later made the mistake of Emmannuelle
. I could also nitpick. Putting Jack Douglas on barbed wire feels slightly unpleasant, I don't believe anyone could dig tunnels that quickly and I don't see why Connor at the end didn't shout for some trousers instead of walking around in that skirt. Diane Langton also manages to be even less sexy than Barbara Windsor in her traditional "busty girl" role. Apparently this film started life as a script for Carry on Laughing!, which I think says it all. It avoids the most toxic depths of the Carry Ons, but that just means it's plumbing a more pathetic kind of nadir.
Windsor Davies is still awesome, though.
"Do your flies up, that man. Your brains is catching cold."