British thriller specialist Michael Winner (Death Wish, 1974) learned all about structure churning out low-budget comedies like this unusually contemporary number. A precursor of the reality television trope of a variety of characters in competition to complete a series of odd tasks, this has a military set-up, aiming to find, oddly enough in an organisation where strict hierarchy dominates, people capable of bending the rules. Initiative, in other words.
Some of the motley crew, of course, have no intention of bending any rules if they can get everyone else to do the work for them, namely upper-class Capt Tabasco (Denholm Elliott) who gets the game rolling by calling in a helicopter as a favor from an old school chum to rescue him from a maze, the first task. He spends most of the time pampered in a hotel suite while dispatching girlfriend Poppy (Tracy Reed) on various expeditions.
There’s a Yank involved, of course, to target the all-important American market, Lt Tim Morton (Michael Callan) also using assistance in the form of upmarket girlfriend Annabelle (Gabriella Licudi) whose specialty is causing vehicle pile-ups. We’ve got a whisky-drinking Scot, Sgt Major MacGregor (Lionel Jeffries), stiff upper back rather than stiff upper lip with his constant snapping to attention, and two graduates from the Army Hapless Division in Sgt Clegg (Bernard Cribbins) and Staff Sgt Mansfield (Lee Montague). Directing proceedings are Major Foskett (Terry-Thomas) and General Lockwood (Wilfred Hyde-White), at opposite ends of the character arc, the former frantic, the latter laid back.
A couple of the five tasks involve unravelling clues, finding a particular rose, for example, but the whole purpose of the exercise is to have the soldiers constantly getting in each other’s way, trying to outwit one another, falling into bizarre scenarios – a fox hunt the cleverest – and generally getting all muddled up one way or another, so that initiative is the last thing they display.
What the movie does have in abundance is imagination, otherwise how to explain the involvement of a seductive housewife, pop star, television show, tunnelling, Lloyd’s of London, Rolls Royce and a greyhound racetrack. On the other hand this might be a smaller-scale precursor to If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1969) in shovelling together all sorts of British institutions and tourist attractions. And certainly Capt Tabasco with his love of the finer things of life demonstrates just how much fun it can be to be British if you’re upper class, wealthy, went to the right school and are not above a bit of blackmail.
As you might expect, the pace is hectic, which is just as well, because if you stopped to think about what was going on you might well throw in the towel. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable in a riotous sort of way, running jokes almost in a separate competition of their own, and if you always hankered to see Michael Callan’s dance moves this is for you – suffice to say he’s not in the Fred Astaire class. But everyone here is there to be made a fool of, except Capt Tabasco, who rises above it all in classy fashion and when he’s out for the count appears blessedly delighted.
Denholm Elliott (Station Six Sahara, 1963) comes off best, testing out his lazy scoundrel, but the top-billed Michael Callan (The Interns, 1962) might never have signed up if he’d known the consequence was being relegated to television for seven years. However, given we are well accustomed to the shtick of the likes of Bernard Cribbins (The Railway Children, 1970), Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon, 1964), Terry-Thomas (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! 1966) and Wilfred Hyde-White (The Liquidator, 1965), he does at least have the advantage of standing out, if only as a novelty.
And just in case the goings-on don’t hold your attention, Winner has recruited a platoon of top British stars in bit parts including Leslie Phillips (Maroc 7, 1967) and James Robertson Justice (Guns of Darkness, 1962) and rising stars such as Tracy Reed (Hammerhead, 1968), Gabriella Licudi (The Liquidator) and Gwendolyn Watts (The Wrong Box, 1966) and future British television treasures Clive Dunn (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977), Richard Wattis (Copper’s End, 1971) and Peter Barkworth (Telford’s Change, 1979). So if you get fed up trying to work out what’s what you can play who’s who.
Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) wrote the screenplay based on a story by director Winner.
Not non-stop hilarity but definitely non-stop something with a good few chuckles thrown in.