In the closing days of World War I, retreating German forces set up a massive bomb in the center of a small French village, hoping to delay and damage an oncoming Scottish force. Catching wind of the plot, the head Scotsman sends in his top ornithologist Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to defuse the bomb, because “demolitionist” and “ornithologist” are easily confused in Scottish, apparently. The French have already evacuated the town in a panic, neglecting the inhabitants of the local insane asylum, who get loose and begin to perform various roles in town, putting Plumpick in quite a predicament.
And that’s how you set up a movie, folks.
The inmates-running-the-asylum trope is common enough, I suppose, although typically limited to horror and comedy (an exception being William Peter Blatty’s under-rated The Ninth Configuration), but the farcical tone of the film is not so overwhelming that it keeps you from genuinely caring about the fate of the characters which raises it above the usual El-Oh-El-So-Random humor (as the kids call it these days) fare, and it’s only slightly brought down by the ham-fisted anti-war message which is pretty much obvious from the get-go. I mean, WWI was pretty insane, and if you were going to make a point about people locked inside asylums being more sane than those outside, it’s not a bad stage to do it on.
Of course, nobody int he film suffers from real insanity, it’s movie insanity, which is charmingly eccentric, impractical, funny, and a metaphor for the artist and his disdain/distrust of social norms—or, in the ’60s, I suppose, a distrust of the “squares”.
Of course, the women are all beautiful, and one immediately rushes off to the brothel to be the head madam (though it’s not clear if it was a brothel before she got there), and some decide to be barbers or tailors or the local cardinal, and one decides to be the mayor, but they decide they need a king.
Enter Mr. Plumpick.
While he’s running around trying to find the bomb and trying to convince the escapees that they need to flee the town, because the bomb is shortly to go off, and he doesn’t even know where it is or how to defuse it, he’s also falling in love with Genevieve Bujold. Because of course you’re going to fall in love with Genevieve Bujold.
The fact that it’s pretty strictly by-the-numbers doesn’t really detract: It is funny, charming, well-acted, lovely to look at (delightful to hold!), and the over-the-top”One Tin Soldier” anti-violence/anti-war message, is at least not ugly. The movie maker’s not trying to make you feel bad. (Director Philippe de Broca has a funny cameo as Captain Adolph Hitler.) It’s just a kind of dopey, hippie, “War! What Is It Good For?” level of protest.
My kids, who are alt-right Nazis (as I guess we all are these days), both really enjoyed it. The Flower loved the costumes and the aesthetics generally, and the Boy found it fun. Considering how suspicious they are of this sort of thing (The Boy of anti-war films, The Flower of the French, and both of them of hippies), that’s a pretty strong recommendation. I also enjoyed it a lot: It’s on the cusp of that period (1966-1975) that I loathe, but without the nihilistic sensibilities.
Check it out!