A mess, but not without a certain knockabout charm. The idea was to twist Arthur Conan Doyle’s rollicking stories of Napoleonic officer Etienne Gerard into something on the order of TOM JONES (the movie, not the book) meets MONTY PYTHON (that series just getting under way). But the producers working in Italy’s CineCittà Studios made a bizarre choice in Polish New Wave director Jerzy Skolimowski who spoke neither English nor Italian and whose previous budgets would have been less than this film’s craft services. So, no surprise to find the first half of the film all but impossible to follow with Gerard (lightweight, if pleasing Peter McEnery) barreling thru Spain, breaking the fourth wall for comic asides as he faces deadly local militia, British Red Coats & anyone else taking up arms against pasty-faced Napoleon (Eli Wallach!?). Everything’s a bit out-of-scale here, except for love interest Claudia Cardinale, she’s perfectly in scale! Also pretty funny, especially when last seen literally up a tree. By then, a wayward plot has seeped in (Gerard’s secret message may be a ruse!!) and something like narrative momentum is taking hold just as armies start doing back flips over retaining walls and fighting breaks out. More absurd than (a)political, the film has dated less than many of the anti-war/anti-authoritarian period epics popular at the time. And it would have collapsed if it were even slightly better.
DOUBLE-BILL: Skolimowski’s had what must have been a frustrating career directing in the West. He filled in dead spots with acting gigs. But try his superb MOONLIGHTING/’82, riveting stuff about illegal Polish workers in London during changing times at home, starring a very young, very effective Jeremy Irons.