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.
By PETER THEIS
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.
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.
|TWO MEN WENT TO WAR|
|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
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.
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|
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