Spiked - 'Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall' (1972)
(L)ike its title, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall is a sly, subversive experience. It sneaks up on you like a well played prank...
Adolf Hitler: My Part in His DownfallRated: PG
Director: Norman Cohen
Cast: Jim Dale, Arthur Lowe, Bill Maynard, Tony Selby, Geoffrey Hughes, Spike Milligan, Pat Coombs, Windsor Davies, Bob Todd
US date: 2011-06-21 (General release)
You can't mention Monty Python's Flying Circus without giving in to some 'goons.' Indeed, whenever the cast of that comedy landmark speak, they always reference the classic British humor troupe from their past. Made up of Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe, the bravura Peter Sellers, and the insane Spike Milligan, their seminal radio show (and eventual TV specials) would come to define English humor in the latter half of the 20th century. Silly, surreal, owing as much to satire as it did slapstick, it was a freewheeling and free associative form of wit that allowed for a kind of ultimate creativity. No holds were barred and nothing was considered sacred or out of bounds. Important players like Python would push the boundaries even further, but it was the Goons who laid the framework for outrageousness.
For many in the US, the collective hold little weight. They are a funny business footnote, little else. Perhaps that's why a movie made of Milligan's humorous autobiographical memoir, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, never became the kind of cult hit one would expect. It has all the trappings of a full blown anti-war farce: the WWII setting; the goofball British army recruits; the snooty upper crust officers; the basic training buffoonery; the occasional grim reminders of combat's realities. Add in a wonderful turn by actor Jim Dale as the Spike substitute and fans should have flocked to it. Instead, it's laid dormant for decades, now finally being resurrected as part of MGM excellent Limited Edition Direct to DVD Collection.
As a hambone trumpet player avoiding conscription, Milligan makes the best of the impending German invasion. He enjoys his life as part of a swing combo and his family supports his idiosyncratic ways. When he can no longer avoid national service, he ends up as part of a crack (or make that, cracked) artillery unit under the auspices of a no nonsense Major Drysdale (Arthur Lowe). While the bull headed Sgt. Ellis (Bill Maynard) puts them through their paces, Milligan and the other recruits slowly realize the sacrifice they are about to make. Sometime, the obstacles are routine - exhausting runs over inhuman terrain, late night gas attack drills, early morning kitchen duty. Sometimes, the truth is terrifying. In the end, Milligan and his pals are prepped out and shipped off to the front. As Hitler moves nearer to Britain, it will be there job to stop him...or die trying.
If you're expecting a riotous ribtickling time, if you think that Spike Milligan's take on war will resemble that classic scene from The Meaning of Life (an elaborate birthday celebration in the trenches) or the entire fourth series of Blackadder, you'd be wrong. Instead, just like its title, Adolf Hitler : My Part in His Downfall is a sly, subversive experience. It sneaks up on you like a well played prank, avoiding the pratfalls and pantomime we've come to expect from such a comedy subgenre. An early '80s effort like Stripes may be all jokes and jibes, but this is a film that hopes to underline its message with merriment, not the other way around. While Milligan plays fast and loose with the facts of his actual service, it's indebted in an approach that argues for the pointless inhumanity, and droll English cheek, of those who sacrificed so much for so many.
Indeed, the main thrust of this film is to show how ragtag groups of ill-prepared men went off to war and came back a greatest generation. It wants to argue that nothing could prepare the average person for a stint slaughtering their fellow man in the name of freedom and liberty. Early on, a German plane is shot down near the artillery training base, and when Milligan and the men stumble across it, their faces tell the truth about possible battle - even in all its gruesome mythos, death is still disturbing. Then the scene takes on an even more shocking sentiment when an explosion costs the English one of their own. All throughout the film, a balance between the goofy and the grim takes place. Dale is delightful dropping quips and wicked one liners, even as the harsh burdens of soldiery constantly confront him.
It's a great performance, one you can see being easily overlooked as merely comical complementing. The rest of the cast are trying so hard to stand out, to be individual characters in a closed group ideal, that Dale's savvy could be seen as superficial. But there are times when director Norman Cohen (he of quite a few Carry On... films) lets the camera linger on his star's face. There, we see the hidden terror and the sad resolve. In Dale's eyes we witness a world of mixed emotions his clever comebacks constantly mask. As for the rest, Maynard makes the most of his time as a typical drill sergeant. He's better than Lowe, who can't seem to decide if he is aloof, or going along for the farcical ride.
As for the comedy, it will seem tame by today's standards. Even Monty Python pushed the levels of ludicrous when they dealt with the subject ("Sgt. Major...marching up and down the squa-re!"). Yet there are genuine laughs here, moments when Milligan the author gives Milligan the cinematic doppelganger the appropriately pointed response. There's even an odd sequence where a fellow recruit does impressions - with his penis. While never shown full frontal, the suggestions are enough to place Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall light-years beyond its fellow '70s satires. Indeed, much of the movie plays like something ahead of its time. There are hints of M*A*S*H* as well as future finds like Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, all captured in a period piece polish that makes the late '30s/early '40s in Britain look like a day in the dark country.
Milligan would go on to play the role of founding father brilliantly. He teamed up with Python for a part in The Life of Brian and continued to explore all manner of medium - TV, movies, books, recordings, plays, children's shows, music - in order to satisfy his creativity. By the time he died in 2002, he was more than just a legend. He had become a fixture, a facet of British comedy that no purveyor of same could ignore. Certainly something like Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall doesn't fully explain his influence and importance. It does contain some very entertaining insights, however.