I'm astonished. I remembered this as being a bit ho-hum, essentially a lesser cousin of the following year's 'Up The Khyber'
. Both films are about a military outpost being menaced by Bernard Bresslaw hamming it up something rotten in blackface. They even share some sets.
Nevertheless the memory cheats. The film's brilliant. I'm now wondering why I never used to think so and as usual with this franchise, I think it's down to the story.
The plot's structurally solid this time, being a parody of Beau Geste, but it relies on a big misunderstanding. Our silly ass hero (Jim Dale) gets accused of cheating at cricket, whereupon he emigrates to Africa and joins the French Foreign Legion. You could justify this in a straight adaptation that tried to show his pain and injured honour, but that was never going to be an option in a Carry On film. I adore Jim Dale's character in this film, but even his friends and family back home only take a few minutes to realise that there's been a cock up and he really ought to come back to England.
I'm not saying it isn't believable. Dale and Butterworth had me by the short and curlies on that one. I'm merely saying that this is an adventure whose heroes have no reason to be involved in it and they'd have done best to turn around and go home. Things become similarly daft during our heroes' never-ending trek to Fort Zuassantneuf, which is admittedly funny but lets all the air out of the film as an adventure.
Then there's the goofiness. There are some silly jokes which break the film's fictional reality, which is a shame since in many ways it's been produced extremely well. This problem is multiplied tenfold by the worst ones coming in a rush at the end. I don't mind Peter Gilmore's suicide, since it happens near the start of the film and you'll soon forget about it. There's a gunshot, after which Gilmore's body is found hanged (ho ho), yet he still manages to gasp out some dying words. Eh? However the film's finale involves:
- (a) that old chestnut of a character who's been shot repeatedly spraying water from multiple holes in his body after having a drink.
- (b) a baby played by Kenneth Williams.
- (c) Bernard Bresslaw showing up in England at Jim Dale's cricket match and bowling him a grenade, then strangling out a typically ridiculous "Howzat?"
Graham Chapman would say that it's all a bit silly, which is a shame since I think the film was better than that. I'm now going to gush for a while.
There's one thing that's great about this film and a number of other things that are merely excellent. The greatness involves the Dale-Butterworth partnership. I adored those two. I loved them to pieces. Dale's playing a combination of Bertie Wooster and the 5th Doctor, a cricket-loving action hero who's nonetheless a hopeless toff unfit to be out on his own. On being invited at midnight to the home of Anita Harris's belly dancer, he's enthusiastic about her physical charms but clueless as to what he's supposed to do. "I am here, in the bedroom." "Oh, I do beg your pardon. I'll wait here." More importantly he's similarly ill-suited to life in the Legion, expecting Butterworth to run him a morning bath and graciously accepting his sergeant's offer to come out on parade, although not until after breakfast.
This is brilliance. I was hooked. I swear they had me laughing at nothing, just by being themselves. I cackled like a loon at the scenes where they get a hold over Phil Silvers and he's playing up to their whims. I can't think of better heroes for a Foreign Legion comedy. They're the world's worst soldiers, but there's a character-based reason for it, instead of Talbot Rothwell just randomly making them stupid as in many Carry Ons.
Jim Dale is endearing, but Peter Butterworth is downright adorable. He's Dale's faithful valet and the relationship between the pair is being played for real, despite the fact that ironically off-set for most of the shoot the two of them weren't speaking to each other. I love Butterworth's unshakeable loyalty in this one, which makes a change from the slightly seedy characters he often plays. He's played plenty of sidekicks in this series, but for me this is one of his best.
I adored this duo, so I adored the film. It's as simple as that. They're strong, distinctive characters who get a lot to do and make me laugh like a drain. What more could you ask for?
The film has other points of mere excellence, the most remarkable of which for me is the production. I've often been surprised by how well-made these Carry Ons have been, despite their cheap and cheerful reputation, and this is another example. This is Saharan Africa, with temperatures hot enough to let you fry eggs on your forehead. At one point the cast have to stagger through the desert, seeing mirages and collapsing of heat exhaustion and lack of water. This is convincing. It looks as you'd think it should. However in reality they shot it in East Sussex and had to stop filming several times because of the snow. For their scenes of being buried up to the neck in sand, Jim Dale and Peter Butterworth had to be wrapped in blankets and given brandy to stay warm.
Similarly the sets are good enough that they kept them and reused them the following year. This isn't a lavish-looking film, since tents and run-down desert forts don't exactly come across as scenic, but despite appearances it might be the Carry On team's greatest production triumph. Mind you, the day-for-night filming looks even more horrible than day-for-night filming usually does.
As for the Foreign Legion itself, it's better-realised than it seems. I enjoyed all the different accents, with Kenneth Williams (German), Phil Silvers (American) and more. This should have felt more authentic than it does, but unfortunately they've asked Charles Hawtrey to play a Frenchman (Captain Le Pice). This doesn't work. He's not even trying. He's funny, yes, but he pops the bubble whenever he appears since there's no way of seeing him as anything except Charles Hawtrey in a Carry On film. The movie somehow gets away with Phil Silvers's asides to camera, but it doesn't get away with him.
Apparently Hawtrey wanted to play the Jim Dale role, which would have made this the best movie of all time. I love what Dale's doing, but his character might as well have Charles Hawtrey stamped on his forehead. Alas Peter Rogers refused.
Of the others, Kenneth Williams as usual is putting in the hard work. Joan Sims is strong in a minor role. Bernard Bresslaw is either taking scary drugs or has Jim Henson's hand up his backside, but it's nice to see him in a worthwhile role for once. Angela Douglas still isn't any great shakes as an actress, but she's gorgeous and perfectly cast as the amiably brainless English rose who goes off to save Jim Dale and discovers sex. She's his female equivalent, except that unlike him she gets her end away. Apparently it was originally going to be Phil Silvers in the pram at the end instead of Kenneth Williams, which is a thought that makes me squirm. It would have worked with Sid James playing Sergeant Nocker, though.
Phil Silvers deserves special mention, obviously. He's basically recycling Bilko and I thought he was great. I laughed at his chutzpah, with his claims to being God's gift to women or his "how are you?" to Bernard Bresslaw on being caught in mid-escape. There are one or two lines he doesn't seem to understand and a couple of places where he slips into an English accent of all things, but I can live with both of those. He's playing it broad enough to feel like a Carry On character and I'd have been happy to see him return, although of course he didn't. The producers had been hoping he'd boost the American box office, but he didn't. Nevertheless Silvers easily bears comparison with other actors to play military figures in the series, such as Windsor Davies and Kenneth Connor.
Anita Harris is playing a belly dancer called Corktip, which is a reference to a character called "Cigarette" in Under Two Flags (1936). However I kept hearing this as "Cock Tip" and assumed that even Ian Fleming was now rolling in his grave. There's innuendo, then there's this. Also Fort Zinderneuf from P.C. Wren's original novel has been renamed Zuassantneuf. Translate that into French. Yes, that's right. It took me an embarrassingly long time to get that one. Oh, and the cleavage on display in the harem scene is eye-catching even by Carry On standards. Get out the pause button, boys.
I did mention that this is a Beau Geste parody, didn't I? Unsurprisingly there had been a Beau Geste adaptation the year before, with Doug McClure, Telly Savalas and Leslie Nielsen in the days when he was still doing straight roles, but this film doesn't seem to be specifically spoofing that one. For starters, the 1966 Beau Geste makes the brothers American.
I loved this film. I can see why I didn't use to, but today I was laughing all over the place. Even little things would set me off, although the script maintains Rothwell's standards of wordplay. "The Pill? What do you suppose they used that for?" "I can't conceive." Fundamentally this is the Dale-Butterworth show and it's them who make the film sing, even with something as simple as Dale getting Butterworth to tread on someone's sandcastle instead of doing it himself. The, um, less ambitious bits of the film I can forgive.