Saturday, 14 November 2015

No.98 - Sexual Boundaries - THE CELLULOID CLOSET


This fascinating multi Emmy-nominated documentary spans the history of Hollywood’s portrayal of gays and lesbians on screen from the silent era through till the mid-1990s. Based on Vito Russo’s book, it shows how in the early days, homosexual characters were initially suggested (or suggestive)  in their mannerisms or presented as flamboyant caricatures especially before the Hays Code came into force. After this ultra-restrictive censorship was adopted, film-makers were forced to encode gay subtext or even remove gay plot themes altogether in mainstream cinema.

The film includes archive footage from many films as well as interview clips not just with esteemed gay writers and directors such as Harvey Fierstein, Armistaud Maupin and Gore Vidal but also heterosexual actors including Harry Hamlin, (star of MAKING LOVE), Tony Curtis, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon who discuss their experiences of the risks and reactions to being involved in ground-breaking films before the more relaxed attitudes of today.

Vidal talks interestingly about the negotiations between himself and William Wyler about enlivening BEN-HUR by introducing a homosexual past history for Messala and Ben-Hur. Amusingly, this was openly broached with Stephen Boyd but seems to have been kept from Charlton Heston at the time for fear of repelling him – but no matter as the one-sided dynamic was still clear enough to audiences. Other films were not so lucky in having creators able to introduce or keep this element even when inherent in the original source material. THE LOST WEEKEND’s protagonist in the novel was an alcoholic tortured by his homosexuality. In the movie, Ray Milland’s writer had the drink problem but now the cause was writer’s block. Similarly, the film of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF suffered from extreme censoring to disguise Brick’s inner torment over his relationship with another man.

Hollywood began to embrace or at least recognise the existence and reflection of gay characters from the early ‘60s in films like VICTIM with its sensational portrayal by a big star, Dirk Bogarde, of a man blatantly admitting to his homesexual yearnings. However, these roles were hampered by a constant coluring of gay figures as confused, tortured and unhappy often with fatal consequences. This still betrayed an air of ‘disapproval’ especially if they died by tragic means, as though this was a price that had to be extracted in return for acknowledgement. Sympathetic versions of this could be seen in Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE for example or Montgomery Clift in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

Possibly the first Hollywood mainstream film to feature positive gay characters who don’t have to die at the end but simply deal with life’s ups and downs like heterosexuals was William Friedkin’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970) written by Mart Crowley based on his stage play.

However, before Tinseltown could congratulate itself, as we moved into the 1970s the new liberality brought an even more offensive angle which was to portray the homosexual as threatening, a villain whose sexuality was perceived as part of their ‘perversion’. The absurd transvestite shot dead by James Caan in FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974) and the two menacing gay hitch-hikers in VANISHING POINT from 1971 are shown, as well as brief undiscussed clips of later movies like the cross-dressing serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and Sharon Stone’s bisexual killer novelist in BASIC INSTINCT. Even William Friedkin wasn’t immune to damaging the inclusive goodwill of his earlier work by exploiting unenlightened heterosexual fears of the gay scene in the extremely poorly- conceived Al Pacino undercover cop thriller CRUISING.

It does seem that in the last twenty years, gay characters and issues have become absorbed much more into the mainstream on screen. It seems to me that as long as we continue to reflect the diversity of sexual orientation and don’t tokenise or issue-drive homosexual inclusion, everyone will come to fit more easily into the sum total of a rich and truthful mirror of the world we live in.

THE CELLULOID CLOSET is expertly-made, thought-provoking and underscored with a lush orchestral score.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

No.97. Sexual Boundaries - THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT (1975)


“I am an effeminate homosexual…a minority within a majority”

With refreshing candour such as this, Quentin Crisp wafted through life - scarved, hatted and coiffeured, scattering witty and incisive bon mots like elegant flower petals – a latter-day Oscar Wilde for the Ovaltine generation. In this charming TV film from 1975, John Hurt masterfully captured the life of an eccentric aesthete whose flamboyantly effeminate dress and behaviour caused amusement, bemusement and physical persecution yet concealed a brave soul within who became a sought-after and highly quotable style maven.

Based on his autobiography, THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT opens with something of an endorsement by the man himself, the real Quentin speaking to the audience from the bedsit where he spent much of his later years. He’s a unique and contradictory personality; hermet-like in private but an exhibitionist in public. Although he leads an ascetic life of monastic absence of sex, money or music, happy to let dust accumulate for years untouched in his home, he is still seduced by romantic glamour. Upon hearing of a film to be made of his life, he recalls being excited as he’d spent his life trying to escape into the fantasy world of the silver screen. When told the aim is to be a realistic depiction, he stifles disappointment by venturing to suggest an idealised preferred opening scene to temper the intrusive desire for unwanted grittiness. We then segue into Quentin the child lost in a swaying reverie in Edwardian female clothing before the mirror, morphing into the young 1920s adult embodied by John Hurt, setting a tone of elegant bewitching playfulness.

The film spans the period from the ‘20s to 1975, focusing mainly on the more challenging formative years that shaped Quentin’s personality. Born into a typically repressed, suburban middle-class family in High Wycombe as the prosaic ‘Dennis Pratt’, Quentin is shown as the product of an unsympathetic solicitor father and an unassuming but usefully well-connected mother. His private dreams and tentative steps as a gay man are cautious in a society still decades away from the legalisation of homosexuality. One evening, a chance doorway encounter with a similar cross-dressing but far more worldly-wise chap leads him into a nocturnal world of kindred souls. He finds himself accepted into a late-night ‘café society’ of camp and fearless male prostitutes. (The actors in these scenes are clearly having a ball, including a young Roger Lloyd-Pack). Through the security of their camaraderie Quentin grows in confidence and begins to build the beguiling armour that has to deflect violence from men and at one point even a sudden slap from a woman on the street, offended by his appearance. It is here in his twenties that he changes his name to Quentin Crisp, a pseudonym more befitting his demeanour.

Populating the colourful world of Quentin’s friends and lovers are future notable TV and film actors. Operatic Welsh character actor John Rhys-Davies, most famous as Gimli in LORD OF THE RINGS, is a lovable childlike boyfriend, and Patricia Hodge belies the period drama ice-maidens she often played on screen as a fey, effusive dance teacher.

The pre-war period setting of the early scenes is nicely achieved within the obvious limits of a TV drama budget, neatly aided by amusing silent movie-style dialogue cards that frame some of Quentin’s more sensational pronouncements such as “Sexual intercourse is a poor substitute for masturbation” and his defining observation that “Exhibitionism is a drug – you get hooked!” .

Our curiosity as to how such a person would get by in society is answered as we see Quentin move from rent-boy through professional commercial artistry. Before settling into a lucrative career as an artist’s model, or as he calls it: “A naked civil servant. My vocation in life”, his search for how to make a living is interrupted by World War Two. For me, one of the two fascinating key scenes in the film is his interview by the Army Medical Board. Here, we could understand or predict a plot device of attempting to dodge conscription by using his sexual orientation, but no, he earns our sympathy even more by the unexpected desire of actually wanting to enlist, albeit due to the pragmatism of getting three square meals a day. Bravely, he doesn’t deceive them about his sexuality and when asked what such an unlikely soul could contribute to the army, replies with disarming logic: “Well, anyone can get killed…” His steely practicality is admirably at odds with our perceived stereotype of him at this point.

There is no sense of Quentin trying to harangue or embarrass the ‘normal’ people around him with militant shock tactics to extort acceptance. Although his appearance brazenly stands out as a challenge, his code of behaviour toward others is discreet and respectful, a model for how he simply wishes to be treated in return. The other stand-out sequence that beautifully illustrates this is when he is in the dock defending himself on a police fit-up charge of soliciting. With enormously persuasive dignity and feeling, Quentin calmly explains that in order to survive he could not possibly afford to prostitute himself so publicly. Moreover, out of respect (and fear of reprisals): “I do not approach or speak to anyone unless spoken to, or look at anyone unless they demand that I look at them”. It is a greatly affecting scene by Hurt, one of the finest I’ve ever seen him play. Quentin’s subsequent acquittal due to ‘insufficient evidence’ is hardly a consolation for being forced to justify his lifestyle in court so painfully.

Happily, as the decades rolled by, Quentin becomes a kind of icon in demand, a personality that embodies the counter-culture of the 1960s and beyond. His later lease of life is as a quotable and entertaining raconteur who ultimately never moved with the times, but let the times catch up with him. He sums himself up self-deprecatingly amid the flower-power youths: “I am not merely a stopped clock. I am a stopped grandfather clock”.
At the close, he fends off the weak harassment of teenage toughs (spot a very young Phil Daniels here) and intones as narrator: “I am one of the stately homos of England…” - a winningly wry and dignified ending.

Hurt is wonderful in the central role, richly deserving his BAFTA award for it. Externally he fully commits to the feminisation of clothing, hair, make-up and physicality, but without ever seeming a distancing, ‘pantomime dame’ caricature of women. You feel this is a man whose true nature is revealed, not disguised, by assuming a woman’s appearance - and it’s a harmless, utterly likeable one. There is none of that cynical hard edge that male drag queens sometimes give off in their posturing - (maybe that’s why I’ve always found them so irritating?).  Watching source interviews with the real Quentin (such as the engrossing ‘World in Action’ one filmed in his flat in 1968), you can also see how successfully Hurt alters his distinctive gravelly tones to reproduce that gentle velvety voice and upward speech inflection.

I remember Hurt once memorably describing himself as ‘the official victim figure of the British film industry’. It’s an insightful label and amongst his illustrious CV, a direct parallel can be drawn between his playing of Quentin Crisp and another real-world ‘outcast’ – John Merrick in THE ELEPHANT MAN. Both men suffered greatly from the inhuman cruelty of others, persecuted by those who feared as well as underestimated them for the way they looked.  Tragically for Merrick, human understanding came all too late for him, compared to Quentin’s triumph of living long enough for his look and original wit to be celebrated more than discriminated against. In both cases, Hurt’s talent and sensitivity goes to great lengths to represent these people fully on screen.

Hurt also made a welcome return as Quentin in 2009’s AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK which documented his years living in the more tolerant world of New York.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

No. 96. Klaus Kinski/Werner Herzog: AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972)


When Werner Herzog decided to make his film AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD there was only one actor he had in mind for the main character: Klaus Kinski – a man whose volatile reputation preceded him like the weather warning of an incoming tornado. Herzog had feverishly written a screenplay for his sixth film that pitted man against the elements in a story of all-consuming greed and single-minded madness. He had found the perfect male embodiment of these qualities...if he could survive the filming.

Herzog had some advance idea of what he was letting himself in for; some years before Kinski had rented a room in his family’s apartment and the director had witnessed first-hand the volcanic, inexplicable rages of which the actor was capable. In his entertaining documentary MEIN LIEBSTER FEIND (‘MY BEST FIEND’), Herzog remembers a blistering forty-eight hour rampage by Kinski, decimating the family bathroom to the point where the fixture damage could have been strained through a tennis racquet. Kinski was a gifted self-taught talent, a veteran of many films who channelled colossal passion instinctively, but was also a vessel for its unchecked reign as relentless egomania.

The timing of AGUIRRE had come just as Kinski had left his infamous one-man tour of Jesus uncompleted, the show had little to recommend it except the spectacle of the actor venting his un-Christ like spleen at the audience. This made it a must-see, filling major German arena venues before he suddenly quit. Despite this and his previous experience, Herzog was committed to using Kinski and two days after sending him the script, he received a 3am phone call of intense ranting that turned out to be Kinski’s great excitement at undertaking the main part.

AGUIRRE is set during the Spanish Conquistador conquering of the Incas of South America in 1560. Hearing the subjugated Indians speak of a fabled city of gold, El Dorado, a nobleman Pizarro leads a team of soldiers and nobles along with one hundred Indians along the Amazon to capture the city and its mythical treasure. Their number includes Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, (Del Negro) a priest who sees their mission somewhat naively as a religious one “to spread the Word of God”, though even he is tempted by the lure of enabling hallowed Catholic artefacts to be fashioned from such wealth. The church’s arrogant trampling over the indigenous culture to convert them by force is clearly no more altruistic than the soldiers’ plundering, for all its holy sanctioning.

The reckless men, and their accompanying fair ladies, fall victim to their own corrosive greed for power and money, none more so than Lope de Aguirre (Kinski), a lieutenant smouldering with treacherous cunning.  Pizarro realises the inadequacy of their provisions along the epic journey, and orders two rafts of 40 of the men led by Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) to go out as a search party seeking food and information about the hidden hostile natives. Aguirre sees his chance to manipulate destiny for his own ends. He arranges a henchman to blow apart a trapped raft with their cannon, and leads a mutiny against Ursúa rather than turn back to their original camp. Aguirre is seized with the pioneering zealot’s confidence of Cortez. Nothing will stand in his way of taking El Dorado. He installs the fat Guzmán, (Peter Berling) from the Royal Spanish lineage, as their puppet Emperor-to-be, flattering the corpulent dimwit whilst biding his time as the power behind the throne. After a kangaroo court presided over by Brother Gaspar declares Ursúa guilty of treason, Guzmán surprisingly offers clemency, but both ‘Emperor’ and the Don’s days are numbered – the former is hanged and the latter strangled. 

Now the way is clear for Aguirre’s true intent – to take power himself as Emperor of El Dorado, severing all ties with Spain.  Like all before him, he foolishly underestimates the prowess of the native Indian tribes along the river. Finally, with the mythical city nowhere in sight, he is monarch of a raft of mortally-wounded followers, the only man standing…

AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD is a powerfully impressive epic about the darker qualities of mankind’s adventurousness: the selfish and self-destructive pursuit of material reward and cultural dominance, as opposed to the heroic taming of unoccupied territory such as the Moon. Kinski, his eyes blazing like hot coals, is perfectly cast as the lightning rod of the film, a terrifyingly driven ogre ferociously bullying the woefully-unprepared soldiers and enslaved Indians, and all too briefly showing a tender concern toward his own daughter. Aguirre sees himself not as the Messiah but as a divine weapon of biblical scale - “I am the wrath of God!” empowered to control all of wildlife and nature. As such, Kinski is electrifying and entirely believable.

The establishing scene of the film, the calm before the gathering storm, is a thing of beauty, a snake-like procession down a mountain of the silent troops and their gear accompanied by a haunting score by the rock group Popol Vuh. It is almost entirely depicted in master shots so we can drink in the splendid landscape that dwarfs these reckless human beings. In shooting this sequence, Herzog recalled feeling a kind of spiritual perfection of purpose. Puncturing this poetic imagery was Kinski’s crude egotism; he was enraged at not being the centre of attention here and could not appreciate that any natural landscape could be as interesting as the human face – more specifically his. Either as punishment or sensitivity, Herzog in fact removed all close-ups of him that were intended later on in the scene.

As filming progressed, director and lead actor gradually battled each other as much as the conditions. Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed madman. Herzog felt a quieter, contained menace would be more effective. He realised as he got to know Kinski’s behaviour that by inciting one of the actor’s childish tantrums he would then get it out of his system so a calmer state would be left to use in the take.  However, this was immensely debilitating to the production to the point where a threatened leaving by Kinski caused Herzog to seriously threaten to kill them both. The genuine Peruvian Indians used in the film were perplexed by the actor’s outbursts. Their culture was much more serene and gentle in resolving problems, leading the head of their tribe to sincerely offer to kill the troublesome actor if Herzog gave him the word. The director kindly rejected this – owing to the further scenes that needed filming.

Herzog acknowledged that sometimes his leading man’s instincts and skills were valuable. The actor had developed a shrewd understanding of camera technique. He showed Herzog a highly effective improvement on the usual dull way of entering the frame in profile (sideways on) and then facing forward. He perfected a move Herzog nicknamed the ‘Kinski spiral’ where the actor would pivot round the camera fluidly as he entered the shot, an arresting and much more interesting visual trick.

On screen, the trials were worth the demands. AGUIRRE’s exotic imagery, passions and conflicts over power and faith echo in later films such as THE MISSION (1986). A more direct influence though was on APOCALYPSE NOW. Coppola was inspired by Herzog’s epic vision when creating the visuals for his meditation on war (the awful anticipatory silence as the raft sails into hostile enemy territory for example). He similarly found that the making of the film became the material for it. Both directors had begun with a loose script and changed the text organically during production.

There are many memorably staged scenes. The discovery of the enemy camp with evidence of cannibalism is macabre, as is the sequence where predatory tribesmen flit in and out of the jungle calling repeatedly to each other as they watch the Spanish pass them – translated chillingly as “Meat is floating by”. Amidst the awful human degradation of the down-river passage, there is even a moment of black humour as a soldier is pierced by an arrow: “The long arrows are getting fashionable” he deadpans as he keels over.

Herzog had managed to make AGUIRRE for the incredibly low budget of $370,000 (a third of which was spent on Kinski), which had been arduous enough to raise much less eke out on a location picture deep in the Amazon rainforest. The film struggled to find a mainstream audience on release, yet gained a great cult following on the arthouse circuit and is now acclaimed as a masterpiece.
In spite of their tempestuous relationship. Herzog and Kinski went on to collaborate in four more highly-regarded projects that channelled the latter’s undeniable searing intensity well including NOSFERATU, WOYZECK and COBRA VERDE. FITZCARRALDO, their second, is the most reminiscent of AGUIRRE’s cruel obsessive mission of madness, the tale of an industrialist who insanely demands the dragging of a full-sized steamship through the Amazon (actually undertaken for real during filming) to access rubber for the funding of an ‘opera house for the peasants’ dream. The logistical nightmare was an apt metaphor for Herzog’s ongoing artistic personal battles with Kinski. An example of these one-man cyclonic outbursts can be seen in MEIN LIEBSTER FEIND from the set of FITZCARRALDO where Kinski rails against the production manager for perceived poor quality of location catering.

Ultimately Herzog was exhausted by his leading man’s constant rages over the years and they severed all ties, but not before Kinski enlisted the director in a bizarre request of his own. Writing his autobiography, the actor feared the public would find it boring if their working relationship was described in glowing ‘luvvy’ terms, so he asked Herzog to help him create fictitious insults he could level in print at the director.  At least they spent a happy afternoon doing something demented together.

(One final point: Lest we think that Klaus’s clashes were solely a personality mismatch between Herzog and him or circumstantial, there’s an insightful video on Youtube by director David Schmoeller about the making of their horror film CRAWSPACE together in 1986. In ‘Please Kill Mr Kinski’, Schmoeller recounts Kinski’s on-set insanity in even more alarming terms. He mercilessly abused his power, systematically emasculating his poor director’s authority by insisting on removing the calls for ‘Action’ and later ‘Cut’, Kinski haughtily decreeing that he will begin and end only when he is ready. The title plea, considered half-seriously, sounds strangely familiar…)

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

No. 95 - Spike Milligan - THE GREAT McGONAGALL (1974)

                                                 THE GREAT McGONAGALL (1974)

In 1974 director Joseph McGrath reunited Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers in the enjoyably crazy THE GREAT MCGONAGALL. Scripted by McGrath and Milligan, it’s a loose (in more ways than one) biopic about one of the world’s worst poets, the real life Scottish writer William Topaz McGonagall, as infamous to rhyme as Ed Wood is to cinema - which means he may have the last laugh as both men achieved an odd genuine fame eclipsing many of their better contemporaries.

An opening crawl gives a brief background of this eccentric as ‘the greatest bad verse writer of his age”. He lived during the reign of Queen Victoria and as he put it: ‘decided at the age of forty-seven to resign my position as a handloom weaver and give myself completely to the muse’. None are more terrifying to the arts than the untalented who give full force to their delusion of possessing a divine gift – and this makes him ideal source material for the gloriously demented Milligan mind, who drew eccentric parallels between himself and the Scotsman.

McGonagall was regularly condemned during his twenty-five year creative output for his inability to scan or to use any metaphors in a poetic sense. Here’s a sample from his notorious ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ (available online):

‘The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.’

Milligan and McGrath take his banality of expression and admirably crackpot self-belief and concoct an indulgent and nutty vehicle for themselves and their friends, but one whose consistent through-line of Goonish surreal humour makes it more amiable fun than the previous year’s GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN.  That’s not to say it’s in any way a polished, coherent piece. It was shot somewhat chaotically in just three weeks (including one week of hard to credit rehearsal) mainly at London’s famous Wilton’s Music Hall in what seems an attempt to maintain a Victoriana setting without many costly period-dressed external scenes. It was also a deliberate choice as Milligan was keen to aid the restoration of the venue, and knew that the location fee from the production would help. This means the plot unfolds mostly as a staged theatre production, an unusual device (and to be fair one used by esteemed director Joe Wright in his recent film of ANNA KARENINA) and allows even more zany stylistic gags – at one point McGonagall ‘forgets’ a line and calls off for a prompt, relayed back by Valentine Dyall in a tin-bath.

If you’re a fan of Spike’s ‘Q’ series like myself, you might enjoy some of the recurring motifs in this film. John Bluthal pops up in numerous roles including a blackfaced John Bull in a bizarre musical number spoofing the British imperialist racism of the time (minstrel make-up was a recurring taste-fee shock tactic in the show). Spike performs in his familiar lunatic expressionist style, complete with copious raspberries and that fiercely declaimed delivery. The stage rep company feel is further enhanced by the aforementioned Dyall using his distinguished forebidding ‘Man in Black’ tones as various parts, as well as Victor Spinetti. Julia Foster does her best to cope as McGonagall’s long-suffering wife.

It’s crafty of the marketing team to claim a co-starring credit for Peter Sellers in the film as he only pops up three times. He gives a Queen Victoria cameo twice of fairly restrained madness, channelling a ‘Hinge and Bracket’ falsetto and a naughty glint in the eye when relating to Prince Albert, wickedly portrayed as a kilted Hitler to mock his Germanic ancestry - another familiar figure to ‘Q’ fans. After Albert brazenly snogs another man in full view of his wife, he asks why she dresses in black. She savours the reply: “You’ll see Albert. All in good time”.

Sellers appears right at the beginning of the film actually as himself in an in-jokey prologue where he begins to work on Spike in the studio make-up chair in modern dress with Milligan helplessly bound and gagged. This is one of a number of odd fourth-wall (illusion) breaking sequences - reminiscent of the police seizing the film at the end of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL that same year. Another one which takes the viewer by surprise is the leaving in of an outtake which gives an insight into Spike the actor: he suddenly pauses, unsure of whether he should be copying a line of Spinetti’s about his appointment with the Queen. It’s slightly startling coming in mid-scene when we’re so used to such curios being left to the end of a film; doubly so as it isn’t the normal indulgence of ‘corpsing’ (the actor laughing), but a moment of genuine off-guard confusion of Spike’s. It’s interesting as well to hear McGrath off-camera establishing order and Spike having enough performer’s self-awareness amidst the insanity to ask: “I’d like to do the take over again because I was over the top. It’s all over the top...”
We then get a fake intermission with a few quick shots of the cast and crew at lunch if you haven’t had the suspension of disbelief broken enough.

The hit-or-miss gags in the film aren’t just surreal meta-jokes. Fittingly for a music hall, there are some that must have been around when it was being built, such as the old ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ faithful, with McGonagall adding “Enjoying the show. Doc?” There are also some deliberate anachronisms on display, such as a heckler shouting “Get your hair cut, you hippie!” when McGonagall is in the dock and a burst of a very modern gratuitous female nude gyrating in his jail cell. This was to appease the producer David Grant who’d made his money in porn.

Overall, THE GREAT MCGONAGALL is something of an undisciplined home-movie. McGrath had observed in a later interview that Spike could be temperamental during the shooting, a different person depending on what day you worked with him (which must have echoed his experience with Sellers on CASINO ROYALE). Don’t go looking for a traditional narrative, but if you’re a Spike Milligan fan in the mood for his anarchic Goon-style humour on screen it’s worth seeing…

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.