It's one of the most iconic Carry On films, along with Carry On Cleo
. It's got a unique central comic idea and some of the series's most memorable scenes. Obviously I liked it.
The only problem is that it's a bit of a runaround with no lead character. Sid James? He's leading from the rear, staying in the Governor's house while his men do all the hard work. His trusty soldiers? They're operating as a military unit and motivated by honour and duty rather than anything so un-British as personal considerations, with the pathetic exception of Charles Hawtrey. Kenneth Williams or Bernard Bresslaw? They're the bad guys! Peter Butterworth? You could have made a pretty good case for him, actually, if it weren't for the fact that he only shows up halfway through the film and that because the others rope him in.
The Roy Castle character probably should have been the lead, though. The role was meant for Jim Dale and he gets a romance with Angela Douglas, which if nothing else makes him lucky enough to be the hero. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work out that way. Roy Castle's delightful, capturing that "I say, chaps" spirit better than anyone else in the film, but he doesn't pull the film towards him like Jim Dale would have done. I wish Roy Castle had done more movies, actually. He did a few, obviously including the first Peter Cushing Dalek movie, but he's one of the most entertaining actors here and considerably better than many people with far lengthier CVs. He's further handicapped by the fact that the girl who's fallen in love with him is Angela Douglas, which means you can forget about getting any acting from her direction. She's superficially competent in that she makes no obvious mistakes, but she's adding nothing to her underwritten role and thus comes across as little more than a traitor to her father and her people. Yes, she's helping the good guys. That's no excuse.
So it's an ensemble piece. Is that bad? No, not as such, but the film's middle section does slow down a bit with running around, getting captured and escaping. It's also a McGuffin plot, in the form of a photo. There's also the problem that the film's finale is so memorable that on repeat viewings you're spending the last ten or fifteen minutes waiting for them to get on with it. If the bad guys are so terrified by the sight of that, why didn't our heroes do it as soon as they were attacked instead of fighting a pitched battle for what must have been about an hour and presumably getting large numbers of people killed?
While I'm nitpicking, I might as well mention that the film's Indian characters are all played by Caucasians. In fact I don't know if I saw anyone of colour at all, even among the extras. Admittedly it's occasionally hard to tell under the blackface make-up when it comes to a fleeting face in the background, but even so that's fairly startling. Is this a problem? I'm not sure. For a start, the blackface isn't actually very black. Kenneth Williams's make-up is so pale that it's as if they were embarrassed by it, while Angela Douglas's only concession to ethnicity is to have dyed her hair. At least it's not the Black and White Minstrel Show.
Secondly, would it really have been better to have had Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi extras standing alongside blacked-up Caucasian leads? What kind of message would that have been sending? "Brown people can be in our film too, but they'll have to stand at the back." At least the film as it stands avoids that kind of problem, maintaining its own silly kind of consistency.
Finally, the film may ostensibly be about the British Empire in 1895, but it's also a non-naturalistic absurdist piece that's clearly very aware of the time when it was made. You've got references to the Wilson goverment's cuts in public spending and "I'm backing Britain" catchphrase. Bernard Bresslaw gets to shout, "That will teach them to ban turbans on the buses!" It's a Kiplingesque parody set at the height of the British Empire that's apparently making specific references to other movies and TV shows to have covered the same ground, such as Shirley Temple's Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and a British TV series called Frontier (1968), but it was made at a time when the British empire was losing colonial possessions to home rule. Furthermore, as with Will Hay's Old Bones of the River
, it paints an often unflattering portrait of the British abroad even as it has fun with stiff upper lips and ridiculous dinner parties. It's irreverent towards the monarchy too. Sid James's character in particular is an appalling old rogue, although of course you'd expect nothing less.
Even Bernard Bresslaw as a villain seems less cartoonish than in 'Follow That Camel'
, probably thanks to the gigantic beard they've given him. Great Scott, he's a huge man.
Other people's mileages may vary, but personally I can't be offended at anything here. If nothing else, this is a film that at times approaches a Monty Python level of absurdity, as with our heroes' ridiculous fake beards when infiltrating Bungdit Din's palace, or the cuckoo clock sound effect that accompanies a guard's head popping out of a hatch in the door. As for the fakir's magic basket...
I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing possible downsides. It's time to get to the good stuff.
I've called the script a bit of a runaround, but in other ways it also happens to be rather brilliant. Most obviously, it's the only Carry On to be based around male nudity. It's the lynchpin of the plot! This is infinitely fresher and funnier than their usual obsession with scantily clad women, with some wonderful scenes such as the one in which the crime of Charles Hawtrey's undergarments horrifies a succession of military officers right up to Sid James. Roy Castle's understated outrage in particular is a joy.
Then you've got the fact that the film seems to have more weight than usual. Bresslaw's men massacre all the British soldiers at the Khyber Pass... and what's more, we see the corpses. It's a battlefield! It's being played for laughs, of course, but this means that we take the situation more seriously than usual when Terry Scott and Charles Hawtrey stay behind to hold off the advancing hordes so that the others can escape. It's a suicide mission. What's more, we believe it. I was mildly surprised when they survived. It's partly because of this that the climactic battle scene works, as opposed to, say, the big fight at the end of Carry On Don't Lose Your Head
. It's slightly shocking when Sid James casually shoots down an attacker during the finale, while I never felt that way when he repeatedly did exactly the same in Carry On Cowboy
"Save the last bullet for Mr Belcher here. After all, he is our guest."
The wordplay is as good as ever, with the silly names in particular for some reason making me laugh this time. I know that's pretty much the lowest form of humour, but what can I say? The 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment. Jacksy. Even the title is bad enough that Rank wanted it changed to "Carry On Up The Regiment", since "Khyber Pass" is Cockney rhyming slang for "arse".
Then you've got the scurrilous gags based around Sid James and Joan Sims, both of whom are perfect. James's attitudes to his job and his wife are a scream, such as when he regards her possible rescue from Kenneth Williams's clutches as a danger rather than a mission objective. Meanwhile Kenneth Williams's plans depend on him getting an object out of Joan Sims's possession and her only condition for handing it over is that he make love to her... and he doesn't do it! He's full of honeyed words, but when it comes down to it, he'd sooner have her executed. "In India, the cow is sacred." Naturally Joan Sims plays her brassy Lady Ruff-Diamond to the hilt. We've seen her doing this kind of grating social disaster before, but that doesn't mean she's not bloody good at it.
The rest of the cast are also wonderful, although not universally so. I've already mentioned Angela Douglas. Charles Hawtrey seems old and slightly joyless, although he's still lovable anyway. Terry Scott is also underwhelming as one of the blandest sergeant-majors I can remember, even just from the Carry On films. Compare him with William Hartnell or Windsor Davies, for instance. However none of those weaker performances damage the film, whereas the good actors are fantastic. You can feel the warmth between Sid James and Kenneth Williams even though they're playing enemies, which gives an unexpected charm to their scenes together. Peter Butterworth is another unexpected standout and it's a shame he wasn't used more. You've also got people like Roy Castle and Cardew Robinson (as the fakir) making their only Carry On appearances and doing more than enough to justify more.
I can't believe I haven't mentioned the dinner scene yet. That's a huge part of this being one of those iconic Carry Ons I was talking about. Note that Peter Butterworth is the key ingredient.
Overall, it's still a Carry On. It's silly, it's more of a runaround than usual and anything of any depth will have crept in accidentally. However if you asked a stranger to name the best Carry On film of all time, there's a pretty good chance they'd name this one. It's on the British Film Institute's list of the best 100 British films, you know.