I've always been fond of this one, but a web search revealed that it doesn't seem to be particularly well regarded. Well, I'm right and they're all wrong. Admittedly it goes to the dogs a bit in the second half, but I was impressed.
First of all, it's the series's big new direction. It's the first time Talbot Rothwell knew from the beginning that he was writing a Carry On and the results are something we haven't seen before. Goodbye real world, hello comedy pastiche. This is basically the Carry On team's version of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), with the following films in the series going on to do James Bond, Cleopatra's Egypt, Westerns, Hammer horror and the Scarlet Pimpernel. After that the series came back to reality to some extent with Carry On Doctor
, but even after that they'd swap from one to the other. One thing that's easy to forget these days is how specific the Carry On team's parodies could be. Carry On Cleo, for instance, is so similar to the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra that Sid James wears Richard Burton's actual costume and 20th Century Fox successfully brought a lawsuit over the movie poster.
Personally I've never seen any version of Mutiny on the Bounty, neither the Laughton-Gable original nor the Marlon Brando remake, but I know enough to be able to see what the Carry On team are up to. What I like about the film is that it's taking its pastiche seriously. Donald Houston and Percy Herbert are playing the Venus's bullying officers for real, running a ship on which men get flogged and poor Bernard Cribbins is lucky to get out alive. Kenneth Williams gets gangrene and has his foot cut off. As for the actors themselves, Houston wasn't a comedian at all, instead appearing in things like Where Eagles Dare. Meanwhile the enormous Herbert would admittedly go on to do three Carry Ons, but his resume also includes 1950s horror films, The Bridge on the River Kwai
and the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty! He played Matthew Quintal.
On the comedic side of things, we have surprisingly few regulars. There's Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and a cameo for Jim Dale. That's it. There's Bernard Cribbins of course, but surprisingly he's not a regular. Admittedly he's such a familiar face that it feels as if he's always been there, but he only ever did three Carry Ons and one of those was Carry On Columbus
. Peter Gilmore appears for the first time and you'll probably know his face too. I suppose there are a few more familiar names amid the minor roles, such as Ed Devereaux as Hook (at last I know what he looks like!) and Patrick Cargill as the Spanish Governor, later to be Nero in Up Pompeii, but by now I'm really scraping the barrel. Instead of being the usual Carry On orgy of classic comedians, it's a straight-up Mutiny on the Bounty pastiche into which a few Carry On characters have been inserted.
There's also Juliet Mills. She's not a comedienne either. She's not even particularly funny, although that's probably because her character doesn't get many jokes. She's pretending to be Bernard Cribbins so that she can sail to sea in search of her lost love. This is good since it means there's a woman in the cast, but this is still one of the less bawdy Carry Ons. There's an early scene in a pub called the Dirty Dicks (no, really) in which women of negotiable virtue are flashing their mighty cleavages, but apart from that, nothing. There are no female characters apart from Mills and despite that bathtub scene, she keeps her clothes on throughout.
So what's the film like? The first half really had me. Bernard Cribbins's performance isn't as sharp as I'd expected from him, but he's still Bernard Cribbins and thus cuddly and lovable. He's playing the kind of gullible innocent role that in time would tend to go to Jim Dale. After a bit of rigaramole, we end up aboard the good ship Venus, although surprisingly the filmmakers never make reference to a certain ditty. Cribbins immediately falls afoul of Houston and Herbert, two brutal sons of bitches who basically live to torture and/or kill the men under their command. Kenneth Williams is their superior officer, Captain Fearless, and he doesn't like all this horridness either. While everyone's stuck on the same ship together, the film's great. The production values are top-notch and the world is being played sufficiently straight that you can take it seriously and the comedy has something to kick against. For the first and last time in this series, the comedy villains aren't comedy villains. They're just villains.
However the film goes downhill when our heroes leave the Venus. From now on, we're following two stories. The first involves the exploits of Houston and Herbert, who quickly win us over. They may be bastards, but they're competent bastards with a fierce desire to kick arse for England. If they'd been allowed to go about their business unmolested, the Spaniards would have been in serious trouble.
The other story involves the Carry On crew, who are of course superhumanly useless and stupid. No possible misjudgement or cock-up is overlooked. Not once but twice do they accidentally ruin Houston and Herbert's military triumphs, which I have a feeling would be much funnier if you'd recently watched Mutiny on the Bounty. Admittedly it's always fun to watch their character interactions, but on a story level I can't approve. They achieve nothing. Everything they do is by accident and/or actually the fault of Kenneth Williams. Yes, I can see the joke. These days I just don't think it's a particularly funny one, although I remember loving it when I was a child. I liked the twist with the pirates, though.
Oh, and yes, of course people can be knocked unconscious that easily. Ahem.
As a standalone comedy, this hasn't aged as well as it might have. However as a parody of Mutiny on the Bounty, I think it works surprisingly well. It's a lavish colour production and far more convincing than you'd expect in its portrayal of a sailor's life. "I think they're going to bathe, sir." "Bathe. How disgusting." I think the second half would have worked much better if we'd still been booing the villains and eager to see their downfall, whereas as things turned out I ended up feeling sorry for them. It might also have helped had the story thought to reunite its cast at some point. It's not particularly sophisticated humour ("look, our heroes are stupid"), but hey. It's a Carry On film. The second half is only okay, but I thought the first half was excellent.