The Adventures of Gerard
It is not unusual for an artist who has encountered compromise and limitation on a project to see only the negative side of it. It is, of course, their prerogative. This can be particularly true of filmmaking, where reliance on the realisation of vision is placed on the many rather than the one. Directors are often surprised to learn that there is acclaim or esteem for a work that they view as a disaster, even if only a vocal minority holds that position. It is often verging on a requirement for a cult movie to be deemed too idiosyncratic to be held up to normal standards of perfection or artistic integrity.
Jerzy Skolimowski emphatically does not hold The Adventures of Gerard in high regard, which is a shame. That this exuberant and experimental literary adaption should be neglected while another that took a not dissimilar approach, Tom Jones, was (deservedly) feted, seems unjust. Perhaps the giddily humorous take on the historical novel was considered passé by this point, or the general fatigue with the costume epic had taken its toll. Maybe it was just seen as a plain bad film, as its director considers the case to be. But as with his later, well-regarded, Deep End and The Shout, Skolimowski shows a remarkable aptitude for the foreign territory of the British sensibility.
At a 2010 screening of Skolimowski’s most recent film, Essential Killing, he commented,
At a retrospective of my work in London twenty years ago I introduced The Adventures of Gerard as my worst film. Today I’d like to say something different: Thank you for coming to see my best film.
It’s a view the director also expresses in the documentary on the recent Blu-ray release of Deep End.
The director had been banned from making films in Poland when he was offered this European (British-Swiss) co-production, and in some respects you sense a certain kinship of tone, scale and sense of humour between this and fellow countryman and former collaborator Roman Polanski’s Fearsome Vampire Killers. Dennis Harvey referred to Gerard as an example of “Europuddings”, international-financed features “intended to appeal to all markets, but which often wound up appealing to none”. It was Skolimowski’s first English-language film, although littered with dubbed performances.
Interviewed by Ben Sachs in 2011, he reflected,
Usually, my best films are based on original scripts. I must say I’m not particularly fond of my adaptations, which were always work for hire.
Following the film’s failure commercially and (in his estimation) artistically, Skolimowski returned to London where he came up with Deep End, which met with the critical acclaim Gerard missed out on.
Ewa Mazierska, author of Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist, felt that it was surprising subject matter for the Pole to pick at this point.
It was a strange choice for this director, who by then did not have any costume or historical films in his portfolio, or even films based on scripts not written by himself. This opinion is reinforced by the director, who claims that he embarked on the project completely unprepared, having no training in making “ordinary” films and being spoilt by the films high budget
Mazierska reports that star Claudia Cardinale was Skolimowski’s guardian angel within the production was (who carried the most star wattage in the cast at the time). The director was close to being fired by the producer, and Cardinale declared that she would walk if this happened. Mazierska takes the view that Cardinale’s loyalty was based on the desire to protect what she considered to be a strong female role (this is true in part, but it doesn’t prevent the director from poking fun at her character, particularly in a sequence where she is sped up in action and voice to resemble a high pitched moaning woman of the sort you might expect to see in a Benny Hill sketch).
Interviewed following completion of the film by Filmcritica, Skolimowski noted the “Europudding” ingredients that he was presented with; an American studio (MGM) letting loose an (untested) Polish director on an Italian shoot for a film set in Spain starring an Italian actress (Cardinale) as a Spaniard and an American (Eli Wallach) as Napoleon.
Things were not always calm and easy. Since I didn't have the 'last cut', I didn't have any control. My version of the film lasted twenty or twenty-five minutes more than the version released. While doing the film I was always on the defensive. Then I told myself that the only solution was to show I possessed humour. The only way to defend oneself is to joke. And that's what I did: I joked about everything around me. This game costs me a year of my life. I also came to understand what the fear of defeat signifies.
It’s unclear how “straight” the script was prior to the attitude that Skolimowski chose to adopt, as it could hardly be said that Conan Doyle’s stories are lacking in humour. Indeed, they have been compared to PG Wodehouse in the cheerful gusto with which they tell their first person adventures. This may be the director’s retrospective way of “justifying” an entry in his filmography he is uncomfortable with.
Arguably, what is Skolimowski’s own is his visual layering. This takes its cues from the earlier work of Tony Richardson but goes further, at times evoking the sense of a live action Looney Tunes. Although it’s clear why the film evokes painful memories, the director admitted that the infusion resulted in a “grotesque magic” and a satire on Hollywood (I’m not altogether clear where that comes into play). Because Skolimowski tends to get assessed under the banner of “serious” critical interrogation, a film of commercial inclination such as Gerard is only offered a kind of backhanded respect, of the “despite this, it has its moments” variety. It is this kind of fawning over what the artist has to say that often induces said artist to be dismissive of anything considered lightweight (for all crave fanning of the ego).
The director noted of his outsider London-eye view in Deep End,
To some extent Gerard is a cake-and-eat-it character. At once avowed as part of the group, he is also possessed by enormous self-regard that sets him as distinct and superior to his fellow soldiers.
The Source Material
The script for the film was based on four of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories featuring Colonel Etienne Gerard. Originally written by H.A.L. Craig (who went on to script Airport ’77), it was worked on by the director and producers Henry E Lester (also producer of Sherlock Holmes classic and John Neville starrer A Study in Terror) and Gene Gutowski (frequent Polanski producer). Mazierska:
It sustains its fast rhythm from beginning to end and comes across as coherent, therefore easy to follow, in spite of being packed with characters and events. This is a remarkable achievement, as Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Gerard is fragmented, with each chapter taking place in a different corner of Europe, devoted to a different story and different characters, and united only by the protagonist, Colonel Etienne Gerard.
While I wouldn’t disagree with the thrust of the author’s assessment, the film is nevertheless very much an episodic affair. As the action-adventure genre often is. Mazierska refers to it as a parody of the adventure film, in which case Conan Doyle’s stories are a parody of adventure fiction. It should be noted that dialogue in the film is, at times. word-for-word lifted from the stories (the Conan Doyle estate was involved in an advisory capacity on the production).
The character of Gerard, a French Hussar during the Napoleonic Wars, is not the hubristic dolt that some reviewers have taken him for. Unlike many comic characters whose sense of self-worth far exceeds their actual abilities, Gerard’s view of himself as a peerless soldier is not inaccurate. The stories repeatedly show him to be more than capable, and as fine a swordsman and horseman as he immodestly considers himself. If his estimation of his worth might be considered entirely un-British, the manner and tone in which Conan Doyle writes his character is infused with a very English gentle mockery (something that the aforementioned Wodehouse perfected).
It is entirely fitting that Peter McEnery should play him an very British way (perhaps the only drawback to this is that the greatest distinction between Gerard and Colonel Russell (Mark Burns) is one of Gerard’s flamboyance, although it does mean that the film does not fall back on more obvious, Clousea-esque, cultural inflections).
Gerard was purportedly based on the historical figure of Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin De Marbot, a French light cavalry officer. Conan Doyle used the character to satirise English attitudes, in respect of both views of the French and Gerard’s expressions of bewilderment at their traditions. The film reflects this, and runs with some themes that captured the ‘60s zeitgeist, such as the mockery of military leadership (Napoleon is ridiculed in the same sentence that he is venerated).
The stories adapted by the film appear include How the Brigadier Won His Medal (the first story, first published in December 1894). This includes the premise whereby Gerard is sent on a fake errand with the expectation that he will be captured and his decoy message intercepted by the English (although Paris and not the Castle of Morales is the object of the enemy). How the Brigadier Took the Field Against Marshal Millefleurs (but Millefleur’s behavior such as burial of a fellow countryman of Gerard’s alive, comes from the banditry of How the Brigadier Held the King) and How the Brigadier Slew The Fox (The Crime of the Brigadier) also appear to have been sources for the screenplay. How the Brigadier Played for A Kingdom may have been the inspiration for the character of Teresa (albeit a German Princess masquerading as a Pole). The first story pretty much forms the kernel of the plot, with new inventions including the ongoing duel with Colonel Russell, the siege of Morales (a castle is destroyed explosively in How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom) and the bizarre activities of Millfleurs.
It is unclear what inspired the adaption; one might have expected it to be tailored as a star vehicle (much as the in-development Steve Carrell version is). Prior to Skolimoski’s film there was a 1915 silent version of Gerard’s exploits. Historical epics were common in the 1960s, but irreverence had been sidelined since Tom Jones in favour of the more common touchstones of grandeur and spectacle.
The opening section establishes both the disposition of Gerard and the setting for the action. Gerard’s narration introduces us to his version of events, and this is frequently undercut by what we see. Albeit that his self-regard induces us at first to think of him as a buffoon until we realise that he is not. It’s a fairly rare choice to have a competent protagonist in a comedy who is mockable, likable and heroic.
Skolimowski underlines the narration with visual cues. We learn that Napoleon entered Spain to forestall invasion of France from the south. He had conquered Europe “except for some stubborn British beef-eaters under the command of… m’lord Wellington”, at which point we see John Neville’s Wellingon.
Gerard himself is introduced, pipe in mouth and his observation that “there was something a trifle topsy-turvy about the war in Spain”, as the camera rotates accordingly, tells us that Skolimowski is not going to be reticent of literality in his visual humour.
From the off, as with the short stories, Gerard makes satirical observations with apparently blithe lack of realisation of the inference they hold for the viewer/reader. So he notes that “it is not for soldiers to think of politics” before offering his views on a subject. He expresses the sentiment (and endorses it as a one who would willingly sacrifice himself for the glory of Emperor and country) that the soldier is a tool to be directed, not a million miles from Forrest Gump being the ideal fighting machine because he is an idiot. Whereas Gump’s blind obedience in following orders is born of a lack of brainpower, Gerard’s comes from an unfailing patriotism and chivalry.
In a further establishing sequence we learn of the bad climate (Napoleon sneezing), the kilted British, guerillas hired to fight and outlaws on the fringes (the bizarre sight of Klu Klux Klan attired “friars”) led by renegade English officer Marshal Millefleurs (“a fitting candidate for the gallows”).
The roll call of characters is finished up with two additions, including Andre Messanier, Marshal of France, “greatest of Napoleon’s generals” (cut to him dilettanting in bed, a visual gag informing us that the opposite of Gerard’s estimation is true). He has been ordered to drive the British into sea but has been cut off and besieged in the caste of Morales, a key position in British lines.
Gerard is allowed to presage criticisms by referencing his unworthiness to comment, so “a gallant man says nothing of another’s private life” and “it is not for a soldier to question his superiors” but reason eludes him why Messanier parades starving soldiers within range of the enemy’s guns. The implication is that Gerard is truly noble and gallant, and uncynical, unlike his superiors. But his language indicates that he has an acute insight into their flaws. The distinction is that honour and allegiance comes before all else.
Then we see the lovely Elena, Countess of Morales; “A Hussar could wish no fairer enemy”. He misreads her motives when he first meets her, due to his own vanity.
Gerard: She blossomed in my presence, this woman, like a flower before the Sun.
Gerard’s unfaltering confidence informs the tone of the film. It is reflective of his mood. Nothing diminishes his verve, nor the confidence and brio with which Skolimowski brings his adventures to screen.
Mazierska quotes Tom Milne’s take on the character.
The fatuous Gerard confiding his self-esteem in asides to the camera, could all too easily become a stock comic caricature, Carry On style, but in Peter McEnery’s characterization he emerges, enchantingly, as the perfect embodiment of Conan Doyle’s Hussar of Conflans, gay-riding, plume-tossing, debonair, the darling of the ladies, and the six brigades of light cavalry. Entering every hazardous engagement with an insouciant twitch of his moustachios, and exiting on horseback with right hand on hip in a gesture of supremely nonchalant insolence. McEnery gives a perfectly calculated performance.
although we laugh at Gerard, it is not a contemptuous sneer, but rather a sympathetic giggle, in which amusement with the grenadier’s cockiness is mixed with admiration for his bravery, commitment to serve his leader and his country, optimism and good luck.
It is the rare combination of idiocy and ability, a competence at his craft, which make Gerard so appealing. But it is McEnery’s delightful performance that seals the deal. Milne sums up his appeal precisely.
Mcenery is perfect as Conan Doyle’s dashing French hussar, prancing through Napoleon’s peninsular campaign with one hand on his hip and the other courting disasters averted only by his sublime insouciance.
Gerard has no doubts about his abilities; the hussars are the pick of the cavalry, the officers the pick of the hussars and he is the pick of the officers. But his unswerving self-belief and vanity are endearing, not dislikable. Even the camera pays attention to him, as he looks smugly into it, riding his horse in a circular motion.
Gerard: I am no ordinary looking man. In the whole light cavalry, it would be hard to find a finer pair of whiskers.
Part of the reason Gerard is so likable is that he is noble. He genuinely exalts the honour of serving his country and Emperor; undeserving rewards would not do it for him. So he does not begrudge the lack of importance that history has placed on his role in the Spanish campaign, and is pained at the thought that his Emperor might not recognize his devotion. Mazierska:
Gerard’s unfaltering self-confidence is winning because it is without malice, anger or denigration of others (except where it is a respect for the natural order of things, as he sees it, usually based on rank and status, even those very points via the ironical commentary of the narration, are often poked at – a script picking up on Conan Doyle’s sense of humour).
Gerard: I am filled with emotion at the approach of my Emperor.
The irony built by the starting point of the story is that Napoleon picks him for a mission because he wants a fool who will be captured (this comes straight out of How the Brigadier Won His Medal). As noted, we do not know at this point whether Etienne is just a silly pompous ass who will prove to be a good choice for the fulfillment of Napoleon’s plan. A few scenes later he is revealed to be sufficiently self-aware to reflect on the general attitude towards him.
Gerard: I was aware that the Emperor had no great respect for my wits and I longed to show him he had done me an injustice.
The short story lays suspicion on the purpose of the mission, but it does not set out Napoleon’s plan in advance (concerning Paris). At the climax Gerard’s bravery sees him awarded his much-desired medal despite the Emperor’s initial ire at the messing up his plans. There he comments that if he had been taken into the Emperor’s confidence in the first place, he would have done as required. In the film, Gerard arrives at the castle, dispatch intact.
Messanier: You are dead.
Gerard: I am not dead. Ah, they all tried but I am not. Captive, tortured, near split down the middle. Englishmen, ladies, Spaniards, they all found nothing. (Proffers) My Emperor’s dispatch.
But Gerard is undented by failing his Emperor. Messanier’s “I command you to die” isn’t far from the fate of Sting’s over-competent soldier in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Gilliam’s name will come up a few times). The soldier is too good at his job (see also Forrest Gump). That Gerard resolves, with doubtless confidence to “destroy the Castle of Morales with me”, with no idea of how to achieve this, has something of the irrepressibility of Gilliam’s Munchausen. Particularly as both films’ titular characters lift the siege as they said they would but in a manner that defies any causality on their parts. There is even the use of a visual punch line to undercut a verbal assertion during the course of both films, as confidence expressed in the safety of the besieged castle is contrasted with the sight of a full-on assault in progress. Gerard falling from the walls onto his horse bears comparison to the Baron’s leap astride Bucephalus from high in the Sultan’s palace.
Even when we first see Etienne fighting skills, ploughing cheerfully through half a dozen of the enemy to impress his leader, we aren’t sure of him (admittedly, it appears that he is no Edmund Blackadder-esque coward). La Salle notes to the Emperor that not all the gallant young officers are fools “I want one that is”, comes the reply.
Gerard: You see my Emperor? Do you see me?
Gerard is too good a soldier; so good that he does not have battle scars bearing testament to his bravery. Trusty Sergeant Papilette (Norman Rossington) provides him with the desired scar in a slapstick splash of dripping blood (“My trustworthy Papilette”).
Gerard: I love my Emperor more than I can express.
And yet his devotion leads to him appreciating Napoleon in a manner that verges on the insulting (and again comes from the short stories):
Gerard: He holds my medals. He makes them sing for him! What woman can compare to this? With his big round head, and his clean-shaven face and his body that is too long for his legs. He looks more like a professor of the Sorbonne than the first soldier of France.
At every stage, his esteem for his leader guides Gerard‘s feelings (“The Emperor himself approved my moustache”).
Gerard: … to be executed as a common spy, dressed in a red coat. Not even a soldier’s death. What would the Emperor say? Oh, what an end. What a dismal end for the finest swordsman in France.
The girlish excitement he expresses at his leader (“I believe you saw me this afternoon. You saw me!”) is not matched by his attraction to Teresa. Any notions of traditional romance are dashed in the final scene, as he happens upon Teresa sat up a tree.
Gerard: I ask you to come down. I have nothing to offer you but myself, and my devotion. But this is surely no mean thing.
Teresa: It is not a mean thing. He who has your devotion has a very fine thing.
Gerard: But I – I love you Teresa, Countess of Morales.
Teresa: You do not love me Colonel Etienne Gerard. You love him (indicates Napoleon).
He is also able to overcome the dilemma “motherland or woman”, which poisoned the lives of Polish romantic heroes, by using the simple formula “Motherland first but, when possible, women too”, and on his way to fulfilling his military duties he takes advantage of any available women. It can even be suggested that his profession as a soldier allows him to enjoy the pleasures of the female body more than if the were a civilian. This is because brothels await soldiers in every village they pass, young women are used as tools to extract military information from them and men are forgiven for raping daughters and sisters of their enemies. Besides, wars do not last forever, therefore women can wait for their sweetheart. This truth is revealed at the end of the film, when Gerard receives a medal from Napoleon and Teresa agrees to wait for him while he goes in search of further adventures and glory.
My reading of the ending was that Gerard made a choice, or even that Teresa made it for him:
Gerard: And what will you do now?
Teresa: I will remain here (sat on branch).
Gerard: It is for Spain.
Gerard’s attitudes are a mismatch of gentility and ignorance. He does not have the emotional capacity to relate to another on a deep level. So he compares his feelings for Teresa to those of his beloved horse.
Gerard: When my beautiful horse Rataplan is in a sweat – what a horse, what quarters on him – when he is in a sweat, I walk him.
Correct behavior is based on norms of chivalry; any breach of his code is felt deeply, but he is a soldier first and a lover a distant second.
Gerard: I had been carrying out my mission in an honorable manner. But now I had done that which a gentleman would condemn. I had passed on letters of tender love from ladies the length and breadth of the Empire as Messanier’s dispatches. I can only offer a soldier’s excuse and cannot in guerilla warfare avoid stooping low, even to deceive a woman.
So seized and righteous is Gerard with his creed that we join him in his pride at where he refuses to cross a line. So, when Teresa apprehends him through a pretence that she is being assaulted by her men, he is unrepentant for his good manners.
Teresa: You are caught by your own chivalry.
Gerard: Always, madam. For I can never fight a lady.
The Countess of Morales
The sexual content of the film might be regarded as a tell-tale of the influence of a European production, as Conan Doyle’s stories recognize Gerard’s triumph with the fairer success but do not indulge so heartily in this area.
It has been noted that Cardinale felt that her character was an unusually strong one, and she wished to protect this. While there are scenes that appear to mock her (the sped-up actions and high-pitched voice) or show her bested (Gerard shaving her face when she dressed as a man), in general she is shown as more than a match for both the English and the French. And, as the Spaniard, the lone voice of reason as these overgrown boys play their war games. The lofty seniority of Gerard and Russell means that they do not have to deal with or witness the undesirable behaviour of the lower ranks.
Teresa: I do not wish to be rubbed rifled or raped by your common soldiers.
Teresa is more than capable of using her feminine wiles for the good of her country
Teresa: I shall be flirting for Spain.
Influences (and Influencer?)
I mentioned Gilliam, and the visual sense of the film might be argued to have informed some of the director’s work, in particular his ‘80s films. Nigel Andrews, writing for Sight and Sound in 1970, recognized the parallels to Munchausen nearly two decades before Gilliam adapted it.
If the film threatens at times to degenerate into a parade of conjuring tricks, it is redeemed partly by the air of baroque, Munchausen-like, fantasy that pervades Gerard's adventures, rich in such casually surrealist details as General Millefleur's accident-prone human dining-table; partly by the fact that Gerard is a genuine Skolimowski hero, quirky and single-minded in his pursuit of self-fulfillment, a Napoleonic counterpart of Marc in Le départ. For all its chaotic surface, Gerard carries a distinctive signature.
Another of Gilliam’s obsessions, the desire to adapt Don Quixote, is referenced by
We find many of these features in Don Quixote and his association is strengthened by the setting of the film in the van deserts of Spain. Gerard also recollects Cervantes hero because, as Carols Fuenetes writes in regards to Don Quixote, “he leaves the village, goes out into the world, and discovers that the world does not resemble what he has read about it”
One might note the trusty Papilette too, and compare him to Sancho Panza, who is marked out as more insightful than his superior (initially at least; with the requirements of a Gerard-focused narrative, Papilette is lost along the way).
Papilette: But why should the emperor tell us his plan?
Gerard: Because he recognises our worth.
Papilette: I am smit with doubts, Colonel.
Gerard: Not like you, old Papilette. I wish you would tell me of them and then with my officer’s quicker intelligence I might set the matter straight.
Gerard’s limited intelligence can be seen as his asset, because it prevents him from excessive introspection and forces him to find practical solutions to problems encountered. Besides, in both Conan Doyle’s rendering and Skolimowski’s re-working, Gerard turns out to have more wit than people are prepared to grant him.
Mazierska also draws comparisons with Gilliam’s old troupe.
Skolimowski’s focus on an indestructible hero of the kind we find in comic books does not exclude his recognition of the cruelty of war. However, he acknowledges it but using his trademark black humour, which in this case brings associations with Monty Python productions. For example, in one scene Gerard is told that the hostile army buried his companion and when he thanks them for what looks like a humanitarian act, he is informed that the man was buried alive. In another scene, Gerard’s beloved Teresa uses a huge axe to torture a man from the enemy’s side. Although the victim appears to be more interested in kissing his torturess than alleviating his suffering, we learn that in the end he died.
Unlike in most comic books, there is awareness to Gerard’s indestructibility. As mentioned earlier, the dialogue in respect of the burial of a fellow soldier is from How the Brigadier Held the King, so the black humour is something that informed the Conan Doyle stories at a core level.
War is not only cruel, but also absurd; its victors and victims are chosen at random. A perfect example of its absurdity is the destruction of a castle not due to military attack or conspiracy, but thanks to pure chance – Teresa’s blind uncle throwing a cigar butt on the ammunition dump.
While this is valid reasoning, I find consistency in the guiding confidence of our protagonist. Munchausen wins out by regaining his self-belief (which is based on the belief by others in him), and as if by magic the besieging army has vanished. Gerard confirms the principle that Mazierska focuses on (“Chance was about to make one of those random gestures the emperor appreciated”) but the Colonel never has any doubts that he will succeed, even if chance has to bend and weave in order to comply with this. Indeed, it is presented as if had been by Gerard’s design all along.
Gerard: The castle of Morales… (the castle explodes) will blow up!
If Conan Doyle’s take on war and the military was wryly ironic, Skolimowski’s approach is to present it as surreal and often nonsensical. The director enjoys contrasting the etiquette of the individual (the duels between the respective countries’ colonels) with the undiscerning mass destruction of each nation’s war machine. Alan Warner observed of the film,
It had a demented Monty Python feel to it, and was mocking of concepts of war, heroism and glory. Of course it was made in the early 1970s, so the anti-Vietnam sentiment was surely in it… It took these Arthur Conan Doyle stories and gave them this slight Swinging 60s whacky vibe...
There is mockery in Conan Doyle stories too, and perhaps the common ground is that neither author nor director has a particular political axe to grind. There is recognition of absurdity but, as Milne puts it, the film
… is not saddled with self-conscious contemporary messages as it was in, say, Waterloo or The Charge of the Light Brigade… It is even difficult to situate the director’s attitude to war on the scale militarism-pacifism. The only clear idea we get is that war, as presented by Skolimowski, is a fact of life, from which nobody can remain aloof. And when it takes place, the only victor is the one who kills his enemies, save his life and wins the girl
Further to this,
… excused by commerce from the need to be serious, Skolimowski gives free rein to his fantasy in a careering period charade which makes amiable mockery of military glory.
However, Gerard does make the occasional gesture that could be seen as directly evoking the anti-Vietnam feeling Warner invokes. But it is couched in the language of war enacted properly, between gentlemen.
Gerard: Fighting should be done between one army and another. What glory is there in killing an ignorant peasant?
Gerard may stumble upon an obvious truth, but it does not ultimately take precedence over his core values.
Gerard: I am beginning to understand. What matters in a man’s life is not only war. There is love.
At the other end of the decade, a representation of war hit the screen with a decidedly less different tone. Nevertheless, Apocalypse Now has in common a view of war as deranged and baffling. In both films the protagonist is sent on a mission behind enemy lines, the nature of which undermines traditional notions of militarism or the heroic. These soldiers encounter a succession of bizarre dangers and strange, damaged characters along the way (there is an Odysseian quality to both adventures). They cannot be said to emerge victorious by dint of strategy or bravery but because due to more subtle qualities of perseverance and clear-headedness.
Both films also feature a sport-based set piece that serves to highlight how crazed the theatre of war is. In Apocalypse Now Colonel Kilgore encourages his soldiers to catch some waves while under enemy fire (“Charlie don’t surf!”). In Gerard, the climax sees Gerard involve himself in a foxhunt by the enemy.
Gerard: The English were about to go a-hunting, across a battlefield.
The implication is clear, that with sensitivities dulled beyond a certain point war equates to a game, a sport.
If Conan Doyle delighted in the Wodehousian eccentricity of the attitudes and customs of the English, this is perhaps even more accentuated through Skolimowski’s outsider eyes. In truth, Gerard himself – played by an English actor and in very RP-manner – comes across as almost stereotypically the upper class Brit. But this works to the benefit of the separation between officers and men across any army. The British are singled out through their cultural foibles and their superior amusement at the behaviour of any foe. Colonel Russell takes the attitude to Gerard that he is almost an extension of his pet dog (one might see by levels of feeling that while the Frenchman sees his animal as a much-loved companion, the Englishmen sees his as an indulged child) when they engage in a duel that is interrupted through the course of the film.
Russell: You are a splendid little fellow. If only you’d been born on the right side of the channel.
Gerard: But I was.
Gerard both admires and is at a loss at his foes (“The English and their cup of tea”). He is baffled, but then finds their lust for the hunt infectious (“Accursed animal, your hour has come”).
Gerard: I confess, amid all the danger, there is something ridiculous about the situation. Truly they are an extraordinary people, the English.
They in turn diminish any predilection of the French for the grandiose.
Wellington: And by dawn I’ll have the other fellow. The one with the big hat and little legs that kisses you all.
Gerard: My Emperor!
In particular, the punch line to Russell’s dismay with Gerard’s behavior tells us all we need too know about the priorities of the English. Gerard thinks this must be due to the destruction of the Castle of Morales.
Russell: That? You do not ride uninvited with the hunt. And snatch away the fox. It is not done.
If the visual humour takes priority in many scenes, it is always reinforced by witty dialogue. The exchanges between Gerard and Russell are a delight. “You are in a pickle, sir. You hold your doggy”, notes Gerard as they first challenge each other to fight. As Gerard leaves, agreeing to return to duel the next day, Russell confides in his dog (“Funny fellow. He’s a funny little French fellow”).
Gerard: I salute Lord Wellington!
Russell: Most of us do.
Both are quite willing to have the other break-off engagement (“I salute you sir – I have other business to attend to”); Russell allows Gerard to leave so that he can complete his mission to Messena.
Kevin Flanagan observed that the film lacks a strongly defined antagonist; this is doubtless a consequence of the mutually observed respect for the rules of war observed by our English and French protagonists.
While the “bad guy” is English (the French Messanier is shown as a louche coward, but he doesn’t really qualify as a villain), he is also no more than a supporting character, encountered during one protracted episode in the film.
And, though Millefleurs is wantonly cruel, he is too jovially unhinged to be despicable. Hawkins plays him with a level of malignant ambivalence. Running with the Apocalypse Now theme, he bears comparison with Colonel Kurtz; the rogue officer with his own private army, causing havoc due to his insanity. As with any parallel between these two films, the difference is in pitch and tone; Kurtz is all dread and despair at the nature of humanity (“The horror, the horror”) while Millefleurs delights in the carnage and desecration of the human body he causes.
Millefleurs is introduced with a soundtrack of discordant organ music (he lives, appropriately, in an abandoned monastery) and exits in similarly operatic fashion, shot in slow motion as a squib explodes on his chest. He is given to the most gleeful, off-colour humour in the film. Aside from the previously noted burial alive, when Gerard – tied to two trees that will tear him asunder – expresses relief that he will die alone, Milllefleurs comments that this is a shame as “women split easier”. He also notes that there is a fine blue sky so Gerard “can see where you’re going”.
Skolimowski’s visual sense of, making the most of the potential of widescreen spectacle to tell a comedic historical “epic”, is something that Gilliam most directly inherited. Mazierska observes,
Moreover, contrary to the director’s claim that the film was spoilt by its large budget, it looks as if the money is spent rather well. The costumes shine, the scenes of battles and pursuits are handled professionally and the setting is rich in decorative detail, Again, it should be complimented, as the setting had to be invented: Conan Doyle’s book is poor in picturesque description, as a consequence of its mode of narration. Gerard, who is the book’s narrator, is so preoccupied with depicting his own adventures that he pays little attention to the wider world.
But the director is more enthused by the larger-than-life, cartoonish potential of his playground than in painstaking attention to historical accuracy. From quite early on, it is clear that the Skolimoski has brought an almost musical sensibility to the both the comedy and action sequences. This is only augmented by the score from Riz Ortolani, which ascends to Morricone-esque heights of enhancing the overall impact.
Flanagan picks out a scene with a firing squad in the opening act.
This approach is not only played for laughs. The scene where Teresa retrieves Naopleon’s map from an irate bull shows off an almost incidental skill in timing as the music and editing style cohere.
Flanagan further comments,
Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1962) was the first of the “modern” historical movies that took root in the ‘60s, issuing from the experimentation in form and style that came with the British “new wave”. Adapted from Henry Fielding’s bawdy comic novel, it took every opportunity to play with visual and narrative, from asides to camera to sped-up sequences. This was very much par for the course in pop culture (A Hard Day’s Night (1964)), but it is likely that the film was not expected to become a mainstream Oscar winner. It should be noted that Tony Richardson doesn’t hold his ‘60s adaptation of a literary classic in high esteem.
I felt the movie to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution. I am not knocking that kind of success — everyone should have it — but whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe a little inside.
There is a sense however, that while Richardson employed visual tricks to advance his mode of storytelling, Skolimowski is a bona fide visual stylist. This is evident in the way he constructs scenes, building and layering them, truncating or extending them, for suspense or comic purposes. He is aided in this immensely by Witold Sobocinski’s gorgeous cinematography (he would later work on Polanski’s Pirates) and Alaistair MacIntyre’s editing (MacIntyre was Polanski’s go-to editor on his European films up to and including Tess).
Look no further than the carriage scene, a surrealist construct of converging characters and actions. Gerard hides from the English in a pond that that they have stopped off at to water from (Russell notes that his dog has discovered Gerard’s cooking, “A roast birdy… It is a fresh roast birdy”) as Teresa is pulled by in a carriage up on the hill. Gerard, underwater, is holding his breath. A wheel dislodges from the carriage and descends the hill in slow motion, landing in the pond. Then, one of Teresa’s Marty Feldman-like henchman descends the hill, sped-up, arriving before Russell intoning “Whee-el! Whee-el!” with outstretched, rotating arm movements. There is no discernable reason for this or logic in terms of presentation, but still there is a unified sensibility in the same way that a Leone set piece is sustained. The dialogue also keeps pace with the rhythms of the editing.
Russell (to the departing Teresa): I am enraptured.
Gerard (poking his head momentarily from beneath the surface): I am captured.
Gerard’s rescue of the “assaulted” Teresa is played in similarly madcap fashion, as we see him in long shot, sped-up, grab hold of then throw her captors’ aside before kneeling by her. At which point the henchmen appear and aim pistols at him. Then one goes off and shoots the carriage, which falls down the hill in slow motion, augmented by slowed-down sound effects.
Nigel Andrews noted the human dining table and pretty much everything involving Millfleurs has a touch of the surreal. A guitar play is shot and bursts into flame in slow motion. Gerard plays a deadly game of bullet dodging with Millefleurs for Teresa, who is tied to a rotating wheel. It ends when the human table is shot, also perishing in slow motion.
Later, momentarily escaping his prison cell, Gerard attempts to leave the castle dressed in Colonel Russell’s uniform (reluctant to stoop to such unsporting behaviour as hitting Russell on the head when his guard is down, Gerard reflects, “It is for France”). He and Teresa happen upon her blind uncle , who is keenly alert that, despite her assurances that she is alone, someone else is in the room. More sped-up action follows as the uncle rotates his wheelchair around firing in the direction he thinks Gerard is hiding. With each cut Gerard is found pressed against a new and impossible spot.
All that can be asked of a comedy is that it amuses. It if it includes commentary or subtext, all to the good. The Adventures of Gerard succeeds where relatively few comedies do, because its director has a genuine visual flair. That it has been roundly dismissed for more than four decades, not least by Skolimowski, is unfair and a loss to its potential audience. It is a rare and rich delight of the sort that could only be found in the era it was made. The Adventures of Gerard deserves wider rediscovery.
Cast & Crew
Jerzy Skolimoswki (b.1938). The Polish director made his feature debut with Identification Marks – None in 1964. Barrier(1966) and The Departure (1967) followed and Hands Up, which was banned in Poland in 1967. It was re-edited with new footage and released in 1981. Following his departure from his homeland, the director made The Adventures of Gerard, followed by Deep End, both released in 1970. King, Queen, Knave, another European co-production and an adaption of the Nabokov novel, came in 1972. Another adaptation followed, of Robert Graves’ The Shout, to considerably better reception. Moonlighting (1982) saw Skolimowski address the plight of Polish émigrés working illegally in London. Following 30 Door Key (1991), the director did not make another film for 17 years, returning to the fray with Four Nights with Anna (2008). Most recently he directed Essential Killing (2010) and played the villain interrogating Black Widow in The Avengers (2012).
Peter Beale held producer credits on several features in the ‘70s and ‘80s including A Touch of Class (1973) and Five Days One Summer (1982). He worked as assistant/second unit director credits also, including on Doctor Zhivago (1965, uncredited) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971).
Gene Gutowski (b. 1925) was born in Poland and holds writing and producer credits on Gerard. He’s better known for his work as a producer on Polanski films; Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-sac (1966), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and The Pianist (2002).
Henry E Lester held an advisory role on several Conan Doyle projects in the ‘60s and ‘70s (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and The Lost World (1960)). He was producer on A Study in Terror(1965) and Gerard (and credited writer). He also held
Riz Ortolani (b. 1931) is credited as composer on more than 200 film and TV titles, mostly Italian and often in the exploitation/horror genre. His pieces have been used in Kill Bill and Drive.
Witold Sobocinski (b. 1929), a Polish cinematographer, collaborated a number of times with both Polanski (Pirates, Frantic) and Skolimowski. He also worked on All That Jazz (1983)
Alastair McIntyre (1927-1986) was Oxford-born and started out as a sound editor. He edited Gerard and Polanski films ranging from Repulsion to Tess (1979).
William Hutchinson was credited as Production designer on 5 films including Gerard but was art director on more than 20, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), Battle of Britain (1969) and Young Winston (1972).
Tony Brandt (1930-2009) had a wide-ranging carrer as second unit/assistant director. This spanned A Fistful of Dynamite(1971), The Godfather Parts I and II, Apocalypse Now, and Titus (1999).
Peter McEnery (b. 1940) McEnery, a regular of the RSC, had a brief dalliance with leading man roles in movies around this period. Early roles included Dirk Bogarde-starrer Victim (1961) and the object of Hayley Mills’ affection in The Moon-Spinners (1964, also featuring Eli Wallach). In the same year as Gerard he was the lead in the film adaptation of Entertaining Mr Sloane. Film and television appearances have been sporadic since the 1970s (during which he was the lead in two series, Clayhanger and The Aphrodite Inheritance).
Claudia Cardinale (b. 1938) found her way into acting following attention as winner of a beauty contest. She worked with the likes of Luchino Visconti (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960, The Leopard, 1963) and Frederico Fellini (81/2, 1963) before making waves in Hollywood with The Pink Panther (1963), on which she was dubbed. Her most famous role came towards the end of that decade, in Sergi Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Later roles included Escape to Athena (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). She has remained mostly in Italian roles through her career.
Eli Wallach (b. 1915) Wallach made his big screen debut in Elia Kazan’s notorious Baby Doll (1956) and has worked prodigiously ever since. Roles include The Magnificent Seven (1960),his most iconic role in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Deep (1977), Winter Kills (1979), The Two Jakes (1990), The Godfather Part III (1990) and most recently in Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010).
Jack Hawkins (1910-1973) Hawkins saw his career take off following WWII when Alexander Korda offered him a three-year contract. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965, and following the removal of his larynx continued to make films, his voice being dubbed (by Charles Gray or Robert Rietty). His signature, star-making turn was Ericson in The Cruel Sea(1953) and military roles became his bread and butter. He appeared in many memorable roles in the next 20 years, including The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Ben Hur (1959), The League of Gentleman (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Zulu (1964), Monte Carlo or Bust (1969) and Theatre of Blood (1973)
John Neville (1925-2011) was into his 60s before he took his most famous role. as the titular character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He was born in the UK but emigrated to Canada in 1972. His most remembered role of this period was Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Terror (1965) and he was little seen away from the stage until Munchausen. Following this there was a resurgence in screen roles; The Road to Welville (1995), The Fifth Element (1997), The X-Files (including the 1998 movie), Spider (2002) and The Statement (2003).
Mark Burns (1936-2007) made his debut in an uncredit appearance in Sink the Bismark! (1960). He appeared regularly in TV roles over the next decade, including an episode of The Prisoner (It’s Your Funeral - 1967). A greater big screen presence followed in the 1970s; Death in Venice (1971), Juggernaut (1974), and the Joan Collins double of The Stud(1978) and The Bitch (1979). His final role was in Stardust (2007).
Norman Rossington (1928-1999) found attention on TV as Private Cupcake on The Army Game (1957-59). He was Albert Finney’s best mate in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and took roles varying from Carry Ons… to military epics (The Longest Day (1962), Lawrence of Arabia, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)). His later career found him most visible in TV roles.
January 1970 (UK)
Napoleon is waging war in Spain. He sends Colonel Etienne Gerard of the Hussars to deliver a dispatch to Marshall Messanier. Messanier is cut off besieging the Castle of Morales. Gerard is unaware that Napoleon intends for him to be captured in order that his message falls into the hands of the English, providing them with false information. An ongoing duel with English Colonel Russell is established, as is the intention of Teresa, Countess of Morales, to lay hands on the plans for Spain. She discovers that she has actually stolen a collection of Gerard’s love letters. She then captures Gerard, but they in turn are taken prisoner by General Millfleur, a renegade English officer who occupies an abandoned monastery with his gang of outlaws. Gerard enables Teresa’s escape, and at the point of execution is rescued by Colonel Russell. He and Russell resume their duel, but the latter agrees to postpone it in order for Gerard to complete his mission. Messanier informs him of the subterfuge. Gerard promises to die as commanded but he will destroy the castle at the same time. With the arrival of Wellington, Gerard is imprisoned in the castle and attempts to escape with Teresa’s help. As he has stolen Russell’s uniform he is about to be hanged as a spy but makes another escape bid, again with Teresa’s help. Involving himself, uninvited, in an impromptu English foxhunt, Gerard’s promise comes true as the Castle of Morales explodes thanks to a well-place cigar from Teresa’s blind uncle. Ever loyal to his Emperor, Gerard bids farewell to Teresa.
Ewa Mazierska - Jerry Skolimowski: Cinema of a Nonconformist
Tom Milne – The Adventures of Gerard review, Monthly Film Bulletin January 1971, The Adventures of Gerard review, Time-Out Film Guide 2008
Kevin Flanagan – Lost/Forgotten/Found 3: The Adventures of Gerard
Jerzy Skolimowski, from interviews with "Filmcritica", February 1971, "Cinéma", January 1972, "Pôsitif", February 1972, Nigel Andrews, "Sight and Sound", Winter 1970-71
SF 360: Dennis Harvey, Striking Skolimowski Films Rescue from Obscurity at PFA
The Herald Scotland : Alan Morrison interviews Alan Warner on Jerzy Skolimowski
The List: Brian Donaldson interviews Alan Warner on Jerzy Skolimowski
Reverse Shot: Damon Smith on Pirates
Parallax View : Richard T Jameson on Barrier/Bariera
Senses of Cinema : Christopher Weedman, Optimism Unfulfilled: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End and the “Swinging Sixties”
all movie : Sandra Brennan on Jerzy Skolimowski
film directors site : Michael Ciment on Jerzy Skolimowski
Mubi: Ben Sachs, An Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski
Electric Sheep Magazine: Virginie Selavey , Interview with Jerzy Skolimoski
Culture PL : Ewa Nawoj on Jerzy Skolimowski
The Digital Fix : Clydefro Jones on Deep End