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    Two Men Went to War

    An army of two

    "Two Men Went to War," a yarn of two dentists' jaunt into World War II, is an awkward fusion of picturesque travelogue and lighthearted comedy with the all-too-serious subject of war.


    Picaresque and picturesque, "Two Men Went to War" resurrects the strangest of film genres, the light comedy of war. Abjuring satire, critique, darkness, and by necessity, naturalism, this British import sanitizes war to coloring-book innocuousness.

    Directed by: John Henderson.
    Written by: Richard Everett, Christopher Villiers.
    Adapted from the book "Amateur Commandos" by: Raymond Foxall.
    Cast: Kenneth Cranham, Leo Bill, Derek Jacobi, Rosanna Lavelle, Phyllida Law, Paul Bayfield, James Fleet, Julian Glover, David Ryall, Anthony Valentine, Mossie Smith.
    Cinematography: John Ignatius.
    Edited by: David Yardley.

    Related links: Official site
    Stationed in Word War II England, open-faced private Leslie Cuthbertson (Leo Bill) and battered, World War I vet Sgt. Peter King (Kenneth Cranham) grow weary of their unglamourous stint in the Army Dental Corps, pining for the heroism that only the battlefield can confer. Motivated by a Victorian sense of honor and notion of war that WWI abolished for most Europeans, and seized by the spirit (and sense) of Don Quixote, Cuthbertson and King go AWOL with grand plans to sink menacing Axis battleships, invade Nazi-occupied France, and tilt their lances towards whatever other windmills cross their path.

    Although the two soldiers are ill-equipped in every sense for any militancy (one decent running gag is that Cuthbertson and King adapt and deploy dental implements to martial ends), they nonetheless succeed. This premise allows for an inflated crowd-pleasing quotient; not only do we get to laugh at the lovable losers' endearing incompetence and sympathize with their vulnerability, but we get to see them prevail over foes as if Cuthbertson and King were Neo and Trinity.

    Two Men Went to War  
    This having cake/eating cake strategy is hard to swallow, especially since this particular formula begs for a heroic suspension of disbelief from the viewer. Who is going to believe that these two could make their way behind enemy lines (with Cuthbertson trysting with a lonely, pretty French housewife, natch), much less penetrate a nest of Nazis and damage an enemy base? This is not a comic film where the comedy lies in its improbability; the filmmakers ask us to believe that the tale is true, and the farcical events are filmed with a baffling sincerity (which the soundtrack punctuates like a hammer).

    Hiding behind its modest ambition to present a quirky little side story of the war, the film also founders by being overambitious in its execution. In addition to relentlessly milking its have-it-all premise, the film relies on too many stock characters (harried, wry, but dutiful prime minister's secretary; swooning innkeeper's daughter; blind-to-true-soldiership superiors; etc.) shopworn feel-good devices (King and Cuthbertson fight, then make up, sealing father-son dynamic), and crisp attention-keeping twists which are endearing at first but soon become as predictable as a British railway timetable.

    Ultimately, the viewer feels manipulated, as if each twist, character-bonding moment, and scene were not the result of the organic logic of the quaint tale, but the result of focus groupthink as to what would elicit an ooh here, an ahh there. Also palpable is the hope of cashing in on the facile idealization of bucolic Europe which markets so well these days. Everything is polished perfect and massaged to fantasy-specs, creating a benign Frankenstein: war as a Sunday picnic excursion, from a Cornwall inn to postcard-perfect rural France under a Tuscan sun. If this be your preferred mode of escapism — we all have our guilty genre pleasures — then "Two Men Went to War" may be your cup of tea.

    MARCH 27, 2004

    Reader comments on Two Men Went to War:

  • Two Men Went to War   from Danny Jones, Mar 30, 2004
  • Two men went to war   from Bob Forster, Jun 24, 2005
  • Re: Two men went to war   from FRANK HERRE, May 2, 2007
  • Re: Two men went to war   from Nicholas Kingsley, Jul 14, 2007
  • Re: Two men went to war   from David Cranch, Jul 18, 2007
  • Re: Two men went to war   from Marjorie Hopkinson, Jul 18, 2007
  • Re: Two men went to war   from David Cranch, Jul 18, 2007
  • Theis criticism   from Denis Downes, Sep 11, 2010
  • Two Men Went To War   from Maureen, Oct 16, 2013

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