Gruff British star Oliver Reed shows his tender side in this entertaining offbeat POW escape picture. With local German men called up for war, Berlin Zoo relies on local prisoners-of-war to help look after the animals. Stephen Brooks (Oliver Reed) is detailed to look after an elephant (considerably more discreet in his toilette than those employed on Babylon). When Berlin is bombed, Brooks takes the elephant to Innsbruck in Austria.
His nickname is a bit of a misnomer. You would think he was going to emulate his famous predecessor and take the elephant over the Alps and into Italy, which would be possibly a safe destination because at this stage of the war the Americans have invaded and are marching north. But, instead, sadly, he only plans to make it as far as neutral Switzerland, where he would be equally safe.
Naturally he is pursued – and captured, and pursued and captured. But there always seems to be a convenient pile of logs that, a la Swiss Family Robinson, can be weaponised. And should you need any obstacle pulled down, well, an elephant comes in pretty handy on that score too.
Ineffectual American escapee Packy (Michael J. Pollard) turns up from time to time, usually in some piece of action that goes wrong, once to interrupt a romantic dalliance with Brooks’ occasional companion Anna (Maria Brockefhoff). And this being the Tyrol, it seems a shame not to halt proceedings every once in a while to take in a marching band or a traditional wedding or fair and for every damsel to have her cleavage on display.
Heading up the pursuit is Colonel von Haller (Wolfgang Preiss) although you might imagine he had more important things on his mind at this stage of the war than chase an elephant. Various troopers are so easily duped by Brooks they might have gone under the collective expression of “dolts.”
Where the elephant has to take the long way – he could as easily have been called “Slowly” – the Germans can travel by road, rail and cable car. It’s pretty episodic stuff, enlivened here and there by explosions and gunfights and the like and the question of whose side Anna is really on.
In some respects it’s a buddy picture. When the buddy is the elephant it works pretty well. Brooks is surprisingly tender and caring. But when Packy enters the equation and it’s the old question of three into two won’t go it becomes a bit lopsided. You get the impression it’s one of these picture that, to accommodate the budget, required an American star and Michael J. Pollard, with his already-established schtick, was nearest to hand.
It’s just as well Reed has toned down his scene-stealing growls and sideways glances because nobody can steal a scene like Pollard. If the elephant was ever in the slightest genuine danger, then you might have had a better picture, but nobody in those days was going to slaughter such a magnificent beast just to give a movie a harder edge.
So the harder edge never comes, and it skips along uneasily between gentle comedy and action, with a potential screen partnership of unlikely personalities never quite gelling. If director Michael Winner had stuck with Reed and the elephant it would probably have worked much better. Or if the escapees had to blow up some vital factory or carry out another mission deep inside enemy territory it might have carried more narrative thrust.
It’s like two separate pictures, Reed and the elephant and Pollard and his bunch of generally hapless escapees. Harmless enough stuff and interesting mostly for seeing Oliver Reed upending his usual screen persona.
At this point in his career, Michael Winner (You Must Be Joking, 1965) was better known for comedy so perhaps this was his passport to suggesting to Hollywood he could handle action. Certainly, it suggested he could merit a bigger budget, for his next movie was The Games (1970) before stepping into the more comfortable territory of Lawman (1971).
I’d suggest this was equally a stepping stone for Reed (The Assassination Bureau, 1969). This film is largely ignored in assessments of the changes to his acting style that he made to accommodate the critically-acclaimed Women in Love (1969). And you can certainly draw a development line between the Michael J. Pollard of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and his character in Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) where he successfully buddied up with Robert Redford. Dick Clement (The Jokers, 1967) devised the screenplay from a story by the director and Tom Wright, on whose own story of being a POW zookeeper this is based.
Most movies perceived as stepping stones are made of stronger material, and although this is more lightweight, it’s entertaining enough and certainly helped director and both stars switch career tracks.