As uneven as it is inspired, Blake Edwards’ large-scaled WWII farce takes nearly half its running time to find its footing. But once it does, it hardly puts a foot wrong. It opens as General Carroll O’Connor assigns by-the-book Captain Dick Shawn to take a little Sicilian town using Lieutenant James Coburn’s over-worked ‘C’ Company. The city’s Italian forces are delighted to surrender, but only after tonight’s much anticipated end-of-hostilities festival. Wine, Women & Song . . . or more war? MEANWHILE: a couple of local yokels roam the ancient catacombs under the city, planning a bank robbery from below; U.S. Army surveillance misreads their aerial photos and plans a bombing run; Nazi surveillance misreads their aerial photos and retakes the town; the Italians have second thoughts about surrender; and Major Harry Morgan shows up, gets lost in the catacombs, and goes bonkers. Okay, that’s about half of what’s going on . . . and all at one & the same time. No wonder Edwards has trouble getting his narrative ducks in order, ya vol? Actually, no. Those ducks are all efficiently lined up for action. What holds things back over the long first act is less elaborate set-up & obvious gags, more personality imbalance. The tipping point comes not when all the action gets into gear, but when Dick Shawn’s overdrawn comic martinet gets drunk, gets laid, gets serenaded . . . and gets it, showing some humanity and loosening up to see the war Coburn’s way. Spoilsport duties get reassigned to Harry Morgan’s progressively loony Major. (It's a rare character blunder from Edwards who should have tried a button-down Bob Newhart type rather than Shawn’s overdrawn blowhard.) Suddenly, everything starts to work both as comedy and as beautifully staged action fare. And while no one can touch Morgan’s hilarious mental meltdown, Shawn is fine once his character comes ‘round, turning in a great second-half that includes a wild bit of drag. Everyone else goes ‘drag,’ too, military drag, with the absurdity of war shown via uniform swaps by Italian, American & German troops. (Who am I shooting at?) Handsome production, too, with a typically sophisticated look (Philip Lathrop lensed) that made Edwards’ output the best looking physical comedies of their era.
DOUBLE-BILL: Edwards had no problems starting DARLING LILY/’70, his WWI comedy/drama; the opening may be the best thing he ever cooked up. It’s the rest of the film that turns on him.