Monday, 9 November 2015

No. 94 - Spike Milligan - ADOLF HITLER: MY PART IN HIS DOWNFALL (1973)


In 1973 United Artists took Spike Milligan’s hugely successful first volume of war memoirs and brought it to the big screen. Although every effort was made to bolster its chances of success, the film doesn’t quite work but is by no means a failure.

In choosing Norman Cohen as director (and co-writer along with Spike and Johnny Byrne), the studio made use of his WWII comedy expertise in having directed the film transition of DAD’S ARMY. They also drafted in Spike to play his own father, Jim Dale, my favourite member of the CARRY ON team, to play the young Spike (real name ‘Terence’), as well as another alumni from that series, Bill Maynard, as the Drill Sergeant.

The film follows the book’s plot in focusing on Spike’s younger days - from being called up following the outbreak of war through his basic training and closing with his unit train-bound to a foreign battlefield. Somehow the sublimely funny surrealist wit of his writing doesn’t easily translate to the screen. Maybe because in his autobiography Spike almost creates his own slightly off-kilter world. You’re never quite sure how much of it is true, yet where he’s woven in invented one-liners and situations it doesn’t matter - it all blends together into its own hugely entertaining reality. As a movie though, unlike CATCH 22 whose overall tone is consistently surreal and dark allowing the actors to simply play the absurdities of war straight-faced to earn the laughs, ADOLF HITLER is set in a recognisable ordinariness. This backdrop means that Dale’s quick verbal ripostes make him sometimes stand out as a comedian doing shtick rather than being integrated believably into the story. Often, he makes a quip and ends it as if expecting a ‘ba-dum-bah’ response from the band when you’d really like his charm to be a little more relaxed and real to match the setting.

Dale’s infectious energy and comic physical dexterity sit better in the physical scenes, such as in the boxing ring and the exertions of the platoon’s five mile run. Where the film and he also seem more secure is in the serious scenes. Like the book, it manages to shift gears into sombre moments well. This is where the grounded reality works in its favour. Having slipped the boys into the barrack-room life away from home deceptively easily, gradually the uglier side of war rears its head. A crashed German pilot hints at mortality and amid the Sergeant’s order to loot the body before the authorities arrive, Spike’s sense of humour and repartee temporarily desert him. Later, Geoffrey Hughes (later to become a household name in both CORONATION STREET and KEEPING UP APPEARANCES) has a powerful scene shambling into the barracks numb with grief at the news of his whole family being wiped out in a bombing raid.

ADOLF HITLER benefits from another notable connection to DAD’S ARMY with a more benign turn as a commanding officer from Arthur Lowe, who gets to pay tribute as in the previous film to the quality of the British service personnel. He gives the film dignity and gravitas as well. As the soldiers carouse in preparation for shipping out, his second in command remarks hopefully that it could be a good war. Lowe touchingly replies: “It will be, Colin. For some of us”. There is perhaps too much reliance on that much-loved sitcom on discovering that the last act of this film is a copy of that spin-off movie’s plot: an inter-platoon war game between Spike’s 56th Heavy Artillery and the 2nd Scottish Highlanders, botched by his men capturing Lowe instead of the enemy commander.

Spike Milligan and Pat Coombs book-end the film playing his own parents, Spike acting in that stiff, slightly expressionist style which again jars against the naturalism elsewhere, although he has some welcome absurdist moments such as enjoying ‘Terence’s homecoming meal with the wine “at shelter temperature”.

The best thing to be said for ADOLF HITLER ultimately is its legacy of showcasing future stars of other TV military sitcoms. Amongst the rest of the cast is Tony Selby, shortly to make his name in the National Service series GET SOME IN, and a brace of future IT AIN’T HALF HOT MUM names - Donald Hewlett and the roaringly splendid Windsor Davies, here channelling his Celtic apoplexy for the Scottish side.

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