"An army that can't bite can't fight" served as a motivational slogan for most of the men in Britain's Army Dental Corps during World War II. But not for all of them. In the very amusing Two Men Went to War, a sergeant and a trainee dental mechanic decide to battle the Germans like a pair of commandos from The Dirty Dozen. Ridiculous as it sounds, they manage to do some serious damage -- in spite of their bumbling approach to warfare. The biggest surprise of all? This delightful movie is based on a true story.
Yes. It actually happened. On a foggy April night in 1942, Sergeant Peter King and Private Leslie Cuthbertson, crossed the English Channel in a single-masted fishing boat and arrived in German-occupied France. They intended to destroy as many Nazis and Quislings as possible on this unofficial military outing. And they covered their absence from dental duty with letters to Prime Minister Winston Churchill requesting that he designate their endeavors as a "Special Mission." Now, that's what I call hutzpah!
When playwright Richard Everett read about the adventures of King and Cuthbertson in Raymond Foxall's book Amateur Commandos, he realized the comedy potential of the story. He recruited Christopher Villiers as a co-writer, and the pair spent a year writing a screenplay about these two unlikely heroes. Happily, their witty adaptation emphasizes human interest over "war story" action. Two Men Went to War emerges as a tale of two men, frustrated at being stuck in jobs they hate, taking desperate steps to bring meaning into their lives.
Fortunately, John Henderson (Spitting Image), who has worked in comedy for many years, signed on as director. His attention to the special timing needed in depicting humorous situations enriches the film considerably. Henderson admits being a great admirer of the British character and claims he was drawn to this screenplay because of its British eccentricity and the rites of passage at the core of the story. "I was attracted to the transformation of each character, where a young Private becomes a man and the hard-nosed Sergeant reveals himself to be just as fragile as anyone else," Henderson explains.
The key roles of Sgt. King and Pvt. Cuthbertson are played by Kenneth Cranham (Gangster No. 1) and Leo Bill (28 Days Later), respectively. Each of these actors grew on me as the movie progressed. They made me believe how serious their characters were about their outrageous mission. Cranham doesn't say much, but his body language projects everything necessary to communicate his character's pride and frustration. Here's a man told he's too old to fight but burning with a passion to see active service. Bill endows his Private Cuthbertson with an easy-going demeanor that contrasts with the Sergeant's rigid manner. And, although he's not the typical handsome leading man, Bill manages to be quite convincing as the object of affection for two beautiful women.
Excellent use of "oldies but goodies" background music adds to the pleasure of watching and listening to this splendid film. Having lived through World War II, I was reminded of many past feelings and events while viewing Two Men Went to War. Now, thanks to this movie, I've learned about a pair of unlikely heroes from that difficult time -- and I salute them.
(Released by Indican Pictures and rated "PG-13 " for some violence.)