Two Men Went to War
2002, NR, 109 min. Directed by John Henderson. Starring Kenneth Cranham, Leo Bill, Rosanna Lavelle, Derek Jacobi, Phyllida Law, David Ryall.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 23, 2004
Adapted from Raymond Foxall’s book Amateur Commandos, this sweet, World War II-era comedy of errors and unexpected derring-do is like a breath of fresh air – there are bullets and bombs galore here, but the lingering scent of cordite that hangs over the vast and gorgeous British and French countryside is more redolent of rose-tinted nostalgia for a time when the Brits and Yanks knew exactly what their goal was and how to go about achieving it. Well, all except for the gruff and grizzled Sgt. Peter King (Cranham), a blustery, bulldog veteran of the war to end all wars, whose current post at a British dental/medical station is a result of his advancing age. None too happy to be stuck biding his time sipping bitters at the officer’s club when he’d much rather be off across the English Channel giving the Hun what-for, he discovers a like-minded soul in the form of bumbling Pvt. Leslie Cuthbertson (Bill). Cuthbertson is equally eager to get his guns going in the service of Her Majesty but, like his Sergeant, is stuck on the wrong side of the channel, slated to attend to the oral hygiene of vitamin C-deprived battleboys. Their first meeting, during which Cuthberton nearly blows up their entire base when he accidentally pulls the pin on a grenade he’s been playfully tossing around, sets the tone for Henderson’s film, with Cranham playing Oliver Hardy to Bill’s Stan Laurel. In short order the pair go AWOL to France on a ludicrous two-man mission to take out the notorious German battleship Scharnhorst – as Sgt. King tells his raw and uncomprehending recruit, all it takes is one grenade in the right place, and down she goes. The pair never stop to consider their absence might end in court-martial or worse, and they even post a letter to Prime Minister Winston Churchill (ably played with proper cigar-and-scenery bombast by David Ryall) explaining that they’re not really AWOL, you see, they just figure they have a better chance of beating Jerry at his own game on their own. Like its two main characters, Two Men Went to War is something of an odd duck, a lightly humorous, almost tender tale of wartime valor from the least expected quarters. Watching King and Cuthberton scour the French countryside for Germans to engage (and nearly being blasted to bits by a pair of marauding panzers); engaging in acts of inspired, albeit low-level sabotage, such as climbing telephone poles to clip the lines ("How much do you think each of these is going to cost them? It’s gotta be at least five quid," remarks the amiable private); and bravely pursuing glory where glory appears to be in short supply, is the antithesis of most recent WWII films – there’s nary a breath of Saving Private Ryan on display. Instead, Henderson’s warm and toasty little gem of a film, slight though it may be, reminds you that the Greatest Generation, full of vim, vigor, and – most important – an indefatigable sense of purpose, grew up on both sides of the Big Pond.