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Two Men Went To War
cast: Kenneth Cranham, Leo Hill, Derek Jacobi, James Fleet, and Phyllida Law

director: John Henderson

104 minutes (PG) 2002
Guerilla/Film 2000 VHS rental
Also available to rent on DVD
[released 5 May]

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Two Men Went To War is an unambitious, entertaining film if somewhat slight. Apparently based on a true story, it is a dramatised account of a passed-over sergeant and a somewhat gormless private (from the Royal Army Dental Core, for whom "an army that can't bite, can't bite"), who go to war on their own account in 1942. Absconding from camp, they steal a fishing boat, invade occupied France, and are lucky enough to gain some military honour before facing a court martial upon their return. Those familiar with some British WWII films of the period will quickly recognise the stereotypes: well meaning amateurs undertake derring-do in their own eccentric fashion and, against all the odds, make a success of things. Over familiar too is the coyness towards adult relationships, as one of the two protagonists blunders in and out of two encounters with women with due virginal surprise. Replace Sergeant Peter King (Kenneth Cranham) with a Tommy Trinder or Arthur Lowe, or Private Leslie Cuthbertson (Leo Hill) with a Claude Hulbert or George Formby, and we are in the territory of The Foreman Went To France (1942) or, from a later period, the hugely popular antics of BBC TV series Dad's Army, which it easily recalls.
   As the AWOL duo en route to France to "take Mohammed to the mountain," King and Cuthbertson make an attractive, odd-couple pairing, whose mutual contempt and distrust, turning inevitably to self-reliance and then friendship, makes up much of the film's dramatic interest. The sergeant, nicknamed 'The Kaiser' by his fellows, has a medal from the First World War (gained, it turns out, in less than heroic circumstances) and wants to do more than stay behind during the new conflict. Private Cuthbertson wishes to live up to the memory of his father and prove himself in his own eyes and in those of his family. He daydreams of valour, either being transfixed by the aircraft that overfly the backwater of his training camp or fantasising with a live hand grenade - the incident which first brings the two men together.
   Much of the film is well shot and the detail of the period is effectively reconstructed. There are niggling inaccuracies however: under threat of invasion place names and signs were removed throughout the UK to confuse likely enemy paratroopers, so it's very unlikely that Plymouth station would be conveniently indicated as here. Equally unbelievable, at a time when the blackout was mandatory, is the well-lit harbour that the two soldiers sail out of when attempting their channel crossing. Least convincing of all is the evident ease in which they arrive and leave the French coast: completely unchallenged and stepping through light barbed wire as if mines and fortifications of any sort had not been invented. Composer Jonathan Harvey provides a score that contains both original elements and from such period acts as Flannigan and Allen. This is well done, making the film seem richer than it is - although this viewer at least felt that the heavy handed use of Elgar during the final attack was a step too far, the blaring patriotism threatening a descent into bathos.
   Parallel to the unorthodox expedition by our two heroes are the preparations back in London for the start of the African campaign by Churchill and his advisors. While the two amateurs are seen as active, ambitious and enthusiastic, the military professionals in the War Rooms are shown perpetually planning and gloomy. The lethargy of those bigwigs in the know is in contrast to the get-up-and-go of those who don't know any better, the one by implication commenting on the other. By the end of the film Churchill, and presumably, via his uplifting, that of the whole war effort, has been saved from a fit of depression by the actions of the two soldiers. The characteristically excellent Derek Jacobi steals the show as Churchill's top intelligence officer while, as the leader himself; David Ryall does a passable impersonation.
   One suspects that this small scale, likeable film will be better received in other countries than in the UK (where critical response was limited and fairly dismissive) as its gentle eccentricities can be charming. The events it portrays and the gentle irony employed are far from those in the typical Hollywood blockbuster, while its modest proceedings mean that it looks better on the small screen than the large. At the end of the day, it's a plot that needed a greater sense of absurdity and real danger than was the case here, although it remains consistently watchable. At least it's not another dismal British gangster picture.
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