Two Men Went to War

John Henderson’s Two Men Went to War, supposedly based on a true story, is almost a throwback to that glory of the British cinema, the Ealing Comedies of the immediate post-war period. My guess is that that was the effect he was going for too, as the picture is positively steeped in nostalgia for the Englishness of the English during that period and earlier. Indeed, it goes a bit over the top in this respect, as moments of inspiration and high feeling are accompanied by the straining strains of Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations or Vaughan Williams’s Tallis fantasia. But you don’t really mind this emotional sloppiness too much because the picture does so well at capturing the more down-to-earth sorts of Englishness we still associate with “Their Finest Hour.”

Sergeant Peter King (Kenneth Cranham) and Private Leslie Cuthbertson (Leo Bill) of a training unit of the Royal Dental Corps — motto: “An army that can’t bite, can’t fight” — at Aldershot each discovers that the other is frustrated by the fact that “our services are exclusively required for pulling teeth” and want to get into the fight in a more, well, fighting way. One day in 1942, the crusty old sergeant, a decorated veteran of the First World War, hatches a plan for the two of them to go to war without benefit of any official sanction. So they both go AWOL, post their pay-books to Winston Churchill, No. 10 Downing Street, with a letter of explanation and go off in a stolen boat to France.

Of course it is all a comedy of errors but, just as you would expect from an Ealing comedy, the two hapless dentists actually blunder into making a substantial contribution to the war effort — something that comes out with the spectacular intervention of Major Merton (Derek Jacobi), an aide to the Prime Minister, at the two men’s court martial at a point where their fantastic story of derring-do in France is completely disbelieved and they are just about to have the book thrown at them.

The best thing about the movie is the relationship between the two men: the fatherly Sgt King, haunted by his own failure to justify the medal he received in the last war, and the fatherless and comically inept Pvt Cuthbertson needing to prove himself a man. There is a growing if unlikely affection between them, but the feeling is treated with a typical English reserve and is leavened by occasional moments of hostility and what sounds — to me, anyway — like genuine cockney humor. When they find that their boat has run out of fuel, for example, and the sergeant hefts one of the two giant oars, Pvt Cuthbertson whines: “We’re not going to row, are we?”

“No,” says the sergeant, possibly struck by an absurdist resemblance between the oar and a giant knitting needle, “we’re going to knit a jumper.”

The comic double act between the two fine actors playing older and the younger soldiers is alone enough to make the movie worth seeing, though it just occasionally pushes its points too far, as when it has Churchill saying: “A few more lunatics like those dentists, Merton, and I could win this war by Christmas.” Sorry, but that’s just a little too much of a good thing. But it is still a good thing.

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