English director Gerald Thomas made the first of the “Carry On” comedies, “Carry on Sergeant,” in 1958 and continued making them through twenty-nine more motion pictures, ending with “Carry On Columbus” in 1992. In addition, he did a “Carry On” compilation movie in 1979 and three “Carry On” TV series from 1981 until his death in 1993. You might say that by the time he died he had pretty much specialized in the “Carry On” franchise. Nothing wrong with that; if you enjoy it, do what you do best.
The folks at VCI Entertainment are now reissuing many of the “Carry On” movies in double features, the one under discussion being Volume 1, containing “Carry On: Follow That Camel” (1967) and “Carry On: Don’t Lose Your Head” (1966). Time constraints being what they are, I watched only one of the films, choosing “Follow That Camel” not just because it came first on the disc but because it guest stars American comic actor Phil Silvers, an old favorite of mine. Not that even Silvers could turn this hopeless lunacy into much more than passing silliness, but at least he’s fun to watch.
“Follow That Camel” was the movie’s original title, and it was the second film in the series that didn’t bear the “Carry On” prefix. Later, presumably to confirm to the other titles, the film’s distributors called it “Carry On in the Legion.” VCI have it both ways, retaining the original title but adding the “Carry On” prefixion.
As with most of the “Carry On” movies, this one stars Kenneth Williams (who was with the series since the beginning), Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Peter Butterworth, and Bernard Bresslaw. Maybe the pressure of doing so many of the same routines so often had already taken their toll on them because they all seem less than inspired to do much more than put in a day’s work. It looks like an old British comedy-variety show that’s been playing too long.
The story line borrows heavily on the enduring “Beau Geste” formula. Ten years after this film, Marty Feldman and Michael York would do it even better in “The Last Remake of Beau Geste.” But in 1967, fans had to take what the “Carry On” filmmakers gave them. The movie plays, as I say, like an old British television comedy, perhaps of the “Benny Hill” or “Are You Being Served” variety but not quite as funny. The humor is hackneyed, tired, and mostly sexist, but I suspect that’s what audiences expected and wanted.
The setting for this installment is 1906, initially at a posh English cricket club, where one posh young gentleman accuses another posh young gentleman of intentionally tripping him. Since no one can even conceive of any posh English gentleman telling a lie, the club automatically throws the accused young man out of the club. Now, what does any posh young English gentleman do who has been so disgraced? Why, leave the country and join the French Foreign Legion, of course. Now, that’s a promising start, with its broad jabs at English class structure and all. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as any satire goes.
The disgraced gentleman, Bertram Oliphant “Bo” West (Jim Dale), heads for the Sahara, with his devoted manservant, Simpson (Peter Butterworth), at his side. Once in Morocco, or wherever, Bo and Simpson join up with the Legion at a small outpost in the desert. Here, they meet Sergeant Nocker (Phil Silvers), Silvers playing a minor variation on his old television role of Sergeant Bilko, a loud, scheming, fast-talking con man always on the lookout for a cushy situation. The problem is that after five years on television from 1955-1959, his Bilko character had run its course, and there was little left to do. Resurrecting essentially the same character in 1967 added little to what was by then a threadbare creation. Sadly, the actor’s best days of “Top Banana,” “The Phil Silvers Show,” “Mad, Mad World,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” were by this time behind him. Nevertheless, he adds a few nostalgic laughs to the film, and fans like me are always glad to see him.
Anyway, more complications arise for Bo once he reaches the Legion. For one thing, his former lady friend, Lady Jane Ponsonby (Angela Douglas), comes following after him to tell him his “disgrace” was not a disgrace after all, that he’s exonerated, that the guy who accused him admitted he lied. Lady Jane is a sweet, lovely, young innocent thing who seems more than willing to bed every fellow she meets in the film.
Another complication comes in the form of Sheikh Abdul Abulbul (Bernard Bresslaw), the “Flaming Sword,” leader of a rebel group, and the comic villain of the piece. Here, the conflict is that once he lays eyes on Lady Jane, he wants her for his thirteenth wife. Little does he know he can have her any time he wants by simply closing the door behind him.
Along the way, we also meet the Legion outpost commander, Commandant Maximillian Burger (Kenneth Williams); the commander’s second-in-charge, the prissy Captain Le Pice (Charles Hawtrey); a local cabaret owner, Zig-Zig (Joan Sims); and an exotic dancer and fortune-teller, Corktip (Anita Harris).
Although I can’t say I had a great time watching “Follow That Camel,” it is clearly all in good fun. The middle of the movie declines into humdrum, relieved only by a bevy of scantily clad harem girls. Just understand that the plot is corny, the jokes are corny, the sex gags are corny, and the action is corny, and you’ll be OK. That’s the nature of the series. The movie is mostly about people falling down or cracking double entendres. It has some good moments but for the most part makes “Hogan’s Heroes” look like high art.
The sun and sand are plentiful. The laughs are not.
Oddly, VCI offer a 1.78:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen transfer for “Don’t Lose Your Head” but a 1.75:1 non-anamorphic picture for the movie I reviewed, “Follow That Camel.” Life is unfair. In any case, “Follow That Camel” delivers good, bright, vivid colors, especially natural in terms of skin tones, deep blacks, and strong contrasts. On the less impressive side, there is some small jerkiness in a few frames and rather ordinary definition, even upscaled. My video rating below applies to “Follow That Camel” only; no doubt the second film, the anamorphic one, would score higher.
The disc includes two English soundtracks–a regular monaural track that apparently came with the film and an “enhanced” track that does little that I could tell but brighten up the audio uncomfortably. I preferred listening to the regular track, which I found smoother and easier on the ear. Neither track does much more than reproduce a narrow midrange, efficient for dialogue but lacking in much scope or impact.
The primary bonus on the disc is the second film, which isn’t too shabby. In addition, VCI provide a two-minute self-guided photo gallery; a “Carry On” promo; twelve animated scene selections per film; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles.
The “Carry On” series carried on through five decades, yet by ten years in, “Follow That Camel” showed that it was already in decline. The slapstick jokes and sexual innuendoes had pretty much run their course by then, and the series was beginning to feel tired, repetitive, and needlessly redundant. Nonetheless, there was still an audience for such things, so the filmmakers filled the need, and the series marched steadfastly on. Fans will no doubt find VCI’s double-feature discs a godsend.