Two Men Went to War
review by Gregory Avery, 26 March 2004

"The dentists are coming!" cries Pvt. Leslie Cuthbertson, both fists raised jubilantly in the air, during one point in the British film Two Men Went to War. Both Cuthbertson and Sgt. Peter King have been serving at a base in Aldershot, in the early part of 1942, where King has been drilling recruits and Cuthbertson has been training to serve in the Army Dental Corp (yes, there really appears to have been such a thing). When King is passed over for a promotion, and Cuthbertson expresses the fact that he doesn't feel like spending the war sitting on his "bum" making dentures, the sergeant takes the private out the front gate of the base one morning, at a fast trot and with loaded backpacks, whence to a train for Plymouth, where they commandeer a boat to cross the Channel into occupied France and perform some mild-to-moderate sabotage work in aid to the British war effort against Nazi Germany.

How they manage to get as far as they do has something to do as well with how the film gradually exudes a charming, even gentle, hold on your attention -- both King (played by Leo Bill) and Cuthbertson (Kenneth Cranham) aren't violent men by nature, they're fairly unassuming, and so they don't readily call attention to themselves. (They almost get caught by a railway conductor on the train to Plymouth, but they bluff and prevaricate their way out of it successfully.) The fact that the harshest thing they do in dealing with the enemy is by klonking one of them on the head with a shovel only seems to add to their particular victory. Leo Bill, who has an angular face that has the look of not quite having filled out with adulthood as of yet (but may just be about to), gives Cuthbertson an optimism and adventurousness -- he seems eager to see what there is to see, even when out in the middle of what is ostensibly enemy territory. (The two British soldiers initial trek across a green, nearly deserted French countryside has the feeling of an idyll.)

The film (based on a true story, or, as an opening title puts it, "Most of what follows is true"), never turns, to its credit, into a pseudo-Monty Python sketch (something along the lines of, "An army marches on its teeth, so every dentist must come to the aid of..., or something to that effect), nor does it stiffen into a handsome, lacquered "prestige" piece. But the film seems small. We are only given some very basic, general idea of what motivates the two men into trying to pull off what is an outrageous and possibly dangerous stunt -- the aging King, who served in the First World War and has a medal to prove it, wants the chance to do one last great thing, while Cuthbertson wants to do something more to fight the Nazis (there is a glancing reference to his being in London, which, by 1942, has been hit very hard by the Blitzkrieg, but no explanation as to how he ended up being assigned to dental chores for the Army) -- but nothing larger than that which would give it more meaning. Nor do we get much of an idea as to of how what they do fits into the larger scheme of things. It's not until the two men are put on court martial for desertion and dereliction of duty -- after they have been put into the mortifying position of being unable to prove what they accomplished right under the enemy's nose -- that an officer and aid to Winston Churchill, played by Derek Jacobi, sweeps in and pretty much saves the men's bacon by showing that their act of sabotage, involving a handful of grenades, just happened to coincide with a major covert raid that had been planned all along. That the men just happened to succeed by coincidence is mitigated by the aid's news that it helped pull the prime minister, Winston Churchill, out of a serious funk into which he had fallen while brooding over the British efforts in the African campaign.

While Kenneth Cranham never entirely lets King turn into a standard-issue British military bulldog, nor Bill allow Cuthbertson to remain first and only a wet-eared pup, Jacobi's appearance in the film is nonetheless marvelous, playing an Army Major who shuttles between the mailroom, where who he calls "the garden room girls" open the daily mail to Whitehall (Sgt. King, prior to the "mission, has posted his and Cuthbertson's paybooks, along with a letter of explanation and intent, there), on down into the bowels beneath Downing Street, where Churchill and his long-suffering secretary (Phyllida Hall, who's exquisite) toil, and back again. Jacobi manages to find some way to bring his character fully and vividly to life every time he's on the screen -- something, I'm afraid, the film, pleasant and enjoyable as it may be on some levels, never entirely manages to with Cuthbertson and King, who remain light, quaint figures to the very last.

Directed by:
John Henderson

Starring:
Kenneth Cranham
Leo Bill
James Fleet
Julian Glover
Rosanna Lavelle
Phyllida Law
David Ryall
Derek Jacobi

Written by:
Richard Everett
Christopher Villiers

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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