James Coburn, who is quickly moving up the ranks as one of my favorite actors, plays Lieutenant Christian of Company C, a small unit who have been through hell and back in the US Army's Italian front. Company C are assigned the task of taking the small town of Valerno in Sicily, a pivotal strategic point in the war against the Axis. The company is assigned a new commanding officer for the job, the by-the-book, stick-up-his-wazoo Captain Cash (Dick Shawn). C Company are at this point as jaded as a one-eyed lemur and are less than taken with the new officer. Nonetheless, they dutifully charge the town of Valerno, guns and artillery at the ready. All of this takes place in the first 10, pre-credit minutes of the film, all shot in beautiful widescreen and color, mimicking the style and vibe of late 50's and early 60's bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission films such as The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen. Edward's eye for detail in these early scenes is especially delightful, setting up surprisingly grandiose set-pieces and battle scenes to set the mood for the anti-war satire to follow. He is helped in no small way by his DP Philip H. Lathrop who shot many of the great and cheesy Hollywood disaster films of the 70's, including three entries in the (in)famous Airport series.
Once C company get to Valerno they are in for something of a surprise. The leader of the Italian troops, Captain Oppo (Sergio Fantoni) couldn't be more eager to surrender. There is only one condition: He and his men must be allowed to stay in the village for one more day to celebrate the annual festival, with much carousing, drinking of wine and singing, all in the company of beautiful, bosomy Italian women. Captain Cash is, of course, not too keen on this idea but Lt. Christian and company manage to convince him to go along with the idea. What follows is a night of such revelry that the opening scenes of The Hangover look like the home videos of a Pentecostal eunuch in comparison.
The film is very funny and the acting is very lively and jazzy, with great turns from Coburn, Shawn, the great Harry Morgan (he of M*A*S*H fame) and Aldo Rey (one of Quentin Tarantino's cinematic muses, the inspiration for Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds). The script contains a lot of funny set pieces and situational comedy, brought to you courtesy of William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist). Among these is a scene where Lt. Christian and Captain Oppo try to stage a battle because both Axis and Allied reconnaissance planes are flying overhead. They get the locals to empty the bullets in their guns of powder and replace them with flowers (Edwards manages to be funny even when he chucks subtlety straight out the window). The problem is that the Italians keep taking espresso breaks and the prostitutes in the square keep cheering on their favorite guys. Which really doesn't look too good when you're trying to pretend you're waging a bloody war. Oh, well. The icing on the cake is that Edwards is second only to Russ Meyer in Hollywood history for being a connoisseur of the female form which he celebrates copiously in this film. The beautiful Giovanna Ralli (who later starred in a few choice giallo films) is displayed especially prominently, and with just cause.
Coburn with the beautiful Ralli, sharing some choice wino
The film does suffer from some problems in pacing and the characters are superficial at best but there is a great deal of craft and a whole lot of fun that inform and propel this film. It is thematically very similar to Kelly's Heroes, another anti-war satire that is a great favorite of mine, though with a great deal more slapstick and farce. I usually don't find people falling over or banging into things very funny, lest it be done by one of the great masters of early silent cinema, yet I must admit that I found much of the physical comedy in What Did You Do in the War to be very funny. Edwards displays some of the same brilliance of staging, set-up and comedic timing that made the first two Pink Panther films such classics. And even though this film is not anywhere near the comedic brilliance of a film like A Shot in the Dark it is nonetheless a wonderful, funny comedy that periodically touches on beauty in its view of war as being the ultimate folly of human nature and that it takes very little - perhaps only a few shared drinks and a joke or two - to get us to reach past our political and ideological allegiances and reconnected with our shared humanity. This film comes highly recommended with a bottle of Wino and a big bowl of fettuccine. Salut!
A few tidbits:
-Dick Shawn was something of a cult figure in the 60's, 70's and 80's. He was very well known for his stand-up comedy which included quite a bit of surrealism and philosophical musings, a kind of proto Andy Kauffman, if you will. He is perhaps most famous for having played the role of Hitler in the production of "Springtime for Hitler" brought to you by Mel Brooks' original Producers.
-DP Phillip Lathrop was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the 1974 stinker Earthquake, which has to be the goofiest looking film ever nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography.
-Caroll O'Connor, who plays General Bolt, a blustery commanding officer headed for Valerno who threatens to expose Lt. Christan and company, was offered the role of Archie Bunker on the hit sitcom "All in the Family" due to his performance in this film.