Famed British comedian John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda) leads a hilarious ensemble in this bawdy military satire that is “lethally funny” (The New York Times)!
The year is 1948, and Major Giles Flack (Cleese) has been ordered to organize a song-and-dance unit to entertain the beleaguered British troops in Southeast Asia. But while he’s transforming the front line into a chorus line, his entertainers are being used as a cover operation to sell illegal arms to Malaysian guerillas! Will Major Flack’s musical band of brothers be able to raise military morale while dodging bullets and shrapnel…or will their show become the ultimate bomb?
eyelights: John Cleese. the musical performances.
eyesores: the caucasian made up to look Indian, but only half the time. the inconsistent tone of the piece.
“Malaysia, 1947. Some fought. Some danced.”
‘Privates on Parade’ is a 1982 film that is based on the semi-autobiographical 1977 farce by English playwright Peter Nichols. It focuses on the antics of the fictional S.A.D.U.S.E.A. (Song and Dance Unit South East Asia), a company that were put together in a theatre troupe to entertain the soldiers during 1947’s Malayan Emergency.
…and did so in full drag.
Whereas the play was a smash hit and even garnered 1977’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, amongst other awards, the film (which featured a few returning members of the play’s original cast as well as newly-cast John Cleese in a key role) was a disappointment at the box office upon its release.
It’s not surprising. While I somewhat enjoyed it, ‘Privates on Parade’ is a sometimes uncomfortable mixture of drama, light comedy (of the double-entendre variety) and cabaret musical in a post-World War II military setting. It’s as though it doesn’t really know what it wants to be so tries to be everything at once instead.
Of course, being a musical, it displays frequent bouts of extreme jubilation; the switch to drama can be jarring. This is particularly the case towards the end, when the film seems to suggest that it’ll head into farce, but instead ends up being a tragedy, slaughtering many of its key characters in a surprise terrorist ambush – a sudden dark turn.
Mind you, these switches aren’t helped any by what I found to be abrupt editing. This not only made it difficult for the parts to merge, but it also didn’t always situate us in the story. Between that and the murky audio track, it wouldn’t be very difficult for the viewer to get lost along the way – I certainly felt like I missed some bits.
The cast is quite excellent, particularly Denis Quilley as the flamingly gay Captain Terri Dennis – who had won an Olivier Award for Comedy Performance of the Year. John Cleese was also quite good, even if he was playing it straight – his authoritative demeanour and extreme propriety made his character a perfect contrast to the rest of the lot.
My key issue rests with the casting of Nicola Pagett as Sylvia Morgan, a half-Welsh, half-Indian woman. While Pagett was perfectly capable in the part, what bothered me was twofold: 1) the use of a Caucasian instead of an actual Indian, and 2) the fact that the make-up department constantly wavered between making her look white or tanned.
To make matters worse, Pagett’s accent seemed to slip from time to time. Now, in a more surreal comedy, I would have found this hilarious, thinking that it was done on purpose. Here, however, it appeared to me to be a mistake, given that it was the only such fluctuation in the whole piece. I sure wish I knew how the director might have let this happen.
But it really does make me wonder why there are so many films that feature Caucasians in the parts of Indians. Doing blackface wouldn’t have passed muster even 20-30 years earlier, so why does it happen so frequently (‘The Party’, ‘The Millionairess’, ‘Doctor in Trouble‘) and still did in 1982? Surely there are decent Indian actors around!
Perhaps Pagett was the most suitable actress for the part at the time (she is rather good in the musical numbers), but I wish that this were made clear. Again, I wish that the character would look and sound much more consistent, so that at least it wouldn’t be a distraction and an insult to the intelligence of its intended audience.
On a positive note, the musical numbers were interesting in that the filmmakers went all out to make them look like full productions for cinemagoers, but at their completion the characters reverted back to their military gear and cheap sets – thereby indicating that they were performing as though they were stars even though they received little fanfare. Nice touch.
Hey, as anyone could tell you, I’m no big fan of musicals, but ‘Privates on Parade’ didn’t test my patience much: the numbers were short and contextually appropriate; I didn’t feel oppressed by them. It’s no cinematic masterpiece, and I’m not sure how well it translates the original play, but it’s worth a glance on a slow Sunday afternoon.
Date of viewing: January 14, 2013