“The British Empire Strikes Back”
Directed by Oliver Parker
Starring Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Toby Jones, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Daniel Mays, Bill Paterson
Dad’s Army, by Jimmy Croft and David Perry, is perhaps the most beloved and enduring of Britain’s classic sitcoms.
Set in the seaside town of Walmington-on-Sea, the series told the story of the local Home Guard platoon, who for nine years engaged in scrapes and shenanigans more or sometimes less war related, from camouflage exercises, to hunting down escaped IRA operatives, to capturing enemy parachutists and submariners. The writers and the characters became national treasures, the series continues to be repeated long after the morbid passtime of calling out which of the actors had since died during the closing credits became monotonous, and a scene in which a German prisoner asks for the name of the youngest platoon member, only to be cut off by Mainwaring’s sharp “Don’t tell him, Pike!” was voted the nation’s favourite comedy line over many more recent offerings.
Often conceived as ‘cosy’, Dad’s Army was pretty racy for its time, with about half the characters engaged in extramarital affairs. It revived the Home Guard in the national memory, launched a thousand catchphrases and while ostensibly focused on the comedy of old men and boys playing soldiers, never failed to present its protagonists as intelligent, good-hearted and courageous. With a run almost unprecedented in the history of British sitcoms, it established unusually rich characters in a full and developed world.
There was also a 1971 film, which remade the early episodes about the formation of the platoon, and added a hostage rescue with German airmen invading the church hall.
In 1944, the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon still diligently guard their little stretch of the south coast, under the command of Captain Mainwaring (Jones) and the leadership of Sergeant Wilson (Nighy). The arrival of glamorous reporter Rose Winters (Zeta-Jones) throws the platoon into a spin, provoking the jealousy and ire of the women of the town as the men prove once more the claim of Cleopatra, that all men are fools and what makes them so is beauty like what she has got.
Things get more complicated when a pair of MI5 agents and the local Home Guard Colonel (Mark Gatiss) inform Mainwaring that a spy is at work in the area, seeking information on Dover Base, an installation critical to Operation Bodyguard. When Winters accompanies the platoon on a security patrol, an attempt to rescue Corporal Jones (Courtenay) from a cliff inadvertently reveals that Dover Base is a sham, a collection of inflatable tanks designed to decoy German aircraft. Winters frames Wilson as the spy and tries to escape on a U-boat, but the platoon – and their other halves in the ATS – arrive in the nick of time to become unlikely big damn heroes.
What’s wrong with it?
The film struggles with what it wants to be, and the weight of the legacy of the original. It wants to feature women in a more realistic role, for example, but is clearly constrained by established characterisations such as the smothering motherhood of Mrs Pike, and the previously unseen force that is Mrs Mainwaring (played here by a formidable Felicity Montague.) Its solution is to place all of the female characters in the ATS and have them be the cavalry to the cavalry in the film’s climax, but given that we already have seven significant protagonists, they get very little set-up and end up largely ciphers defined by their relationship to one of the men of the platoon.
Superspy Miss Winters is caught out by Godfrey’s sisters thanks to their dedication to The Lady magazine, and the fact that she has flashy designer clobber delivered to her address in Berlin. No wonder MI5 were stumped.
Nighy’s Wilson gets to play a robust semi-romance with Winters, built on their acquaintance when he was her tutor at Oxford. Mainwaring and Pike’s starry eyed pursuits of the same lady are pure cringe.
What’s right with it?
The film is at its best when it commits to its own stuff instead of trying to shoehorn in another ‘They don’t like it up ’em,’ from Courtenay.
The espionage story, including Mainwaring’s refusal to see the truth because he doesn’t believe that a woman could be a spy, is much stronger than the romantic shenanigans.
The talent at play here is such that they could pretty much have been reading the Yellow Pages and I’d have watched it.
How bad is it really?
It’s not terrible, and – I’ll be honest – I kind of thought that it would be. Winters is painfully obvious as the spy, to the point that I was seriously expecting her to turn out to be an MI5 counterintelligence agent. It’s a ‘twist’ that suits the style of the original, and I think that highlights the degree to which our expectations and understanding of narrative have changed. What would have worked perfectly in the original Dad’s Army seems clunky here, because this is a modern movie, and it works best when it is being its own movie, rather than attempting to be the original. Very few of the attempts to fit in the catchphrases work out, because they were so closely associated with the actors as well as the characters, but when hot young talent like Jones and Nighy and Paterson are allowed to just play the characters, something far more effective emerges.
In the end, Dad’s Army is a broken film, half recast sequel and half remake, that manages to preserve neither the form nor the spirit of the original in its struggle to do both.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Private Godfrey’s sisters, Dolly and Cissy (played by Julia Foster and the sublime Annette Crosbie) arrive to lay out their evidence against Miss Winters, and I kind of want to know why Crosbie has never played Miss Marple. Mainwaring’s astonished ‘But she can’t be. She’s a woman’ is a perfect encapsulation of the character’s central flaw, his inability to see beyond his own preconceptions, without needing to directly reference anything in the original series.
What’s up with…?
- The ATS weapons? They show up with some double guns (presumably hunting rifles, since they’re firing from a clifftop,) but also lever-action repeating rifles. Were those really commonplace in small seaside British towns in 1944? Some may recall that in the series the platoon originally had to bring their own weapons and turned out with one old service rifle and a collection of cutlery.
- The inflatable tanks? I mean, not in and of themselves; that’s what Operation Bodyguard is famous for. Just… would they really have inflated decoy tanks with Helium?
Production values – Now, I’m not generally one to toot the national horn, as it were, but you know what we Brits do well? Costume drama. 4
Dialogue and performances – A hit and miss script, dogged with old catchphrases and expectations, is delivered with nothing short of brilliance. 9
Plot and execution – Dad’s Army labours to deliver its simple espionage plot through the cracked lens of another era’s sitcom humour. 11
Randomness – Where did those guns come from? And how are Dolly and Cissy able to fact-check so quickly in wartime Britain? 7
Waste of potential – Neither a misty-eyed nostalgia piece, nor yet quite its own beast, Dad’s Army languishes between two poles instead of standing triumphant. 12