5 December 2000 | the red duchess
As reassuring and familiar as worn slippers.
The comedies of the Boulting Brothers may not have dated very well. It is hard to believe that 'Private's Progress' was released only three years before 'Some Like It Hot', because while Wilder's films seems fresher and more modern with each passing year, ever renewable and adaptable, big enough to hold the latest theory or fad, 'Progress' is a dinosaur, stone dead, trapped inside a mindset only Anne Widdicombe would recognise, unable to transcend its time or ideology by cinematic invention, comedic originality, or subversive ideas.
Furthermore, many Boultings' comedies, such as 'I'm Alright Jack' and 'Carlton-Browne of the FO' are virtually indistinguishable, sticking an upper-class ass into an 'alien' environment, be it of class, profession, modernisation, and watch him make an upper-class ass of himself.
Actually, this is a little unfair on the Boultings - one can see what they're doing. Usually embodied by the sublimely silly Ian Carmichael, this character is a receptacle of a certain kind of English ideal, someone fundamentally decent, loyal, complacent, absent-minded, a good egg, cricket-playing sort of chap, a person so removed from the actuality of real life, that when he is actually thrown into this modern inferno, where his values are so much empty posturing, he is hopelessly out of his depth, a figure of fun, to be used and abused by the new aristocracy, the cads, entrepeneurs, go-getters, women; crooks one and all. But he's not some sort of naive Holy Fool in a world of devils; he is dangerous, and his practical paralysis enables the devils to thrive, as happens in 'Progress', with a plot so blithely horrifying, you have to pay attention to be shocked.
Because, even though moments of laugh-out laughter are sparse (there are a few, eg Stanley's drunken scene), this is a thoroughly enjoyable film. This enjoyment comes largely from the Brothers' cynicism, by trotting out out the same old reliable faces you get in every British comedy of the period, aware that the mere sight of them will guarantee a fond chuckle and immediate pleasure. And dammit if they're not right.
They're all here - Carmichael, so good-naturedly inept, you can't help warming to him; the godlike Terry-Thomas, less a lecher here than usual as the bored major who slips off to the cinema or pub, although he does listen eagerly to tales of his unit's priapic effect on the local females - his 'you're all absolute showers' will never pall; Dennis Price, another glorious study in polished evil to rank with 'Kind Hearts and Coronets', as ruthlessly efficient as the Nazis as he profits from fleeing Jews (in many ways, this is a much more successful take on the world of 'Catch-22' than Nichols' film); Richard Attenborough, whose greatness as an actor is in inverse proportion to his talents as a director, wonderful here as the sly cockney to watch (as with 'The League of Gentlemen', it's a great shame that British cinema at the time was so censorious); John le Mesurier, who needs only to open up his mouth to suggest barely concealed aghastness (sic?).
The film starts well, with the timeless arcadia of Oxbridge contrasted with the destructive horror of the war situation. The Boultings' comedy is pretty much formulaic, a series of character sketches giving on to an implausible, though enjoyable plot. As is advisable in comedies, Boulting shoots in a restrained, unobtrusive style, never flat, sometimes straining for the picturesque, but sometimes, with a sharp camera movement, achieving a superb effect, such as the queue outside the medical tent where Stanley stands, a bit 'fragile'; the white pillars looking frighteningly like the unmarked military graves you find dotting France.