(SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.
At one point, Major Hitchcock, played Terry-Thomas – the great Terry-Thomas, in the first of slew of standout roles that made his name over the next half-decade– stealthily sloths off from duties to visit the cinema, only to discover similarly slothing-off privates Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) and Cox (Richard Attenborough himself) in the audience. The film is none other than much-hailed propaganda pic In Which We Serve… in which noble Sir Dickie portrays a reprehensible coward who leave his post. Here, however, Cox’s cheerful disregard for anything involving patriotic duty is something to be celebrated. He might just do something decent, but it would only be because he was out to make a mint along the way.
Sergeant Sutton: Don’t look at me! I’m not Betty Grable.
Indeed, while Private’s Progress takes its time getting there – structurally, it is not wholly dissimilar to Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, although no one blows drill Sergeant Sutton’s brains out in a fit of pique; fortunate, as William Hartnell was yet to go on to play Doctor Who – its plot essentially revolves around war profiteering. Which, even though they were frightfully keen to do their bit and wave the flag at the time, might be the Boulton Boys’ point: essentially all war is profiteering, depending upon who masterminds the conflict and pulls the strings (anyone doubting this could be the case for such an “honourable war” needs only delve into the murky financial underpinnings of the conflict).
Hence their final dedication “To all those who got away with it, this film is most respectfully dedicated” and cheerful dismissal of any endorsement at the outset: “The producers gratefully acknowledge the official cooperation of absolutely nobody”. Historically, you needed something major like a global conflict to rearrange the fabric of society. These days, not so much, because people will believe anything especially if isn’t exploding on their doorstep. The Boultings also take meticulous relish in establishing at the outset that a fighting service of four million needs administration by fourteen million civil servants, so it’s clear right there where I’m Alright Jack’s seeds are sown (albeit both come from Alan Hackney novels; Hackney went on to pen Michael Winner’s sole masterpiece, You Must Be Joking).
Dennis Price’s Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel, the uncle of Carmichael’s feckless protagonist, is the instigator of this chicanery. Price was little more than half a decade beyond the dashing young protagonist/antagonist of Kind Hearts and Coronets, but he had already passed into “elder” roles. Indeed, that shift is especially marked as he was only five years older than Carmichael, in his mid-thirties but playing a university student (more acutely, Carmichael had finished the war as a major, so very slightly a contrast with his entirely inept private, and indeed, the embarrassingly inept type that was his particular brand). He’d also play Bertie Wooster – opposite Price’s Jeeves – in his mid-forties, which was pushing it rather. I digress. It’s easy to do that with this cast, so I’ll more than likely do it again. You have been warned.
Tracepurcel has hatched a plan – Operation Hatrack – to raid the Germans’ raided art treasures and return them to the Allies… after they have taken a “commission” off the top, passing the spoils on to a couple of dodgy art dealers. If you’re put in mind of George Clooney’s abysmally inert The Monuments Men, don’t be, as that might swear you off Private’s Progress. Perhaps if Clooney’s sometime collaborators the Coen Brothers had adapted the material, his project might have wound up with a bit of pep and verve, or even a spine; they were, after all, evident fans of Ealing (The Ladykillers), so most likely they also appreciated the Boulting Brothers too.
Tracepurcel – who “left Sandhurst under a cloud” – brings in several willing accomplices including Attenborough’s Cox, who has already shown off his wideboy traits while giving a lecture in avoiding paying for the train (he proceeds to deliver proof of this practice’s efficacy, succeeding in secreting half a dozen of his comrades in a carriage’s toilet cubicle so as to avoid the guard). Attenborough’s much more engaging here than in his latter-day twinkly mode (which only really took over when he became luvvie director first and performer second). Indeed, one could readily imagine this Sir Dickie being called upon by Guy Ritchie for one of his gritty cockney gangster larks (as for Cox, were this ever remade, heaven forbid, it would be easy to see a young Simon Pegg in that role, heaven forbid). There’s also Peter Jones, later ubiquitous and also the Voice of the Book, as Egan. Both characters are quick to label Windrush an imbecile when he’s seconded by his uncle. Which, to be fair, he is.
Indeed, there are quite a few similarities between Carmichael’s archetypal sap and the one played by Wisdom, the main difference being class. Carmichael is the upper-class twit – just as Terry-Thomas is the upper-class stinker – while Wisdom is more the earthy clod. Carmichael’s haplessness is key, a ridiculous cypher blown along from event to event; crucially, in contrast to a standard Wisdom role, the Boltons have no real sympathy for their protagonist; he doesn’t make good. Indeed, it looks as if he will be taken down along with the actual criminals, and they seem to be saying, thanks to his inveterate obliviousness, it probably serves him right (and so to us all who remain conspicuously in the dark about the actual score). It’s easy to see why he was cast as Wooster, but Windrush isn’t Woosterish; Bertie has a semblance of attitude when he’s up against it, but Windrush will just roll over and grin weakly.
Major Hitchcock: I suppose you know why you’re on this route march? Because you’re a shower! An absolute shower!
It’s true that, during the early stages, Private’s Progress is a little on the loose side, as if it isn’t quite sure which way it’s heading. The basic training wouldn’t go that far amiss in Carry On Sergeant (1958) also starring Hartnell (this was surely an influence of the Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers, if for box office alone). It has some considerable aces up its sleeve, though. Not least in the form of Terry-Thomas, who is magnificent.
So magnificent that, as early and crucial in his big screen career as this is, the best scene comes from another character imitating his inimitable style. In some respects, although Hitchcock conforms in haughtiness to Terry-Thomas’ later archetype, he’s a much more sympathetic character than the actor would usually play. He shows leniency towards Windrush and later expresses how terribly disappointed he is in his behaviour, culminating in the declaration “You’re an absolute bounder!” Hitchcock is another character who doesn’t terribly fancy the services (although playing the officer class would be Terry-Thomas standard, in contrast to Carmichael, he only made it to sergeant in the actual military).
The classic scene I mentioned in the preceding paragraph – sorry, side-tracked again – also shows that, when he wasn’t straight-jacketed, Carmichael had a lot of comic potential. Windrush, pissed out of his gourd and exclaiming “You’re an absolute shower!” in mirthful imitation of Hitchcock, is detained at the barracks’ gate by Lance Corporal Parsons (David Lodge). Having been instructed by Cox never to give them your real name, he tells Lodge “I know your type” before informing him that he is “999 Picklepuss” (Hitchcock will later give a suffering Windrush a couple of aspirin).
Even if the production hadn’t been lively enough in its own right, the parade of grade-A British actors would have been enough to see Private’s Progress through. Besides those mentioned, there’s Ian Bannen (his first credited film role), Kenneth Griffith, John Le Mesurier, Victor Maddern, Thorley Walters, Jill Adams (a good year for her with this and The Green Man) and an uncredited Christopher Lee (as Major Schultz).
The Boulting’s distrust of any institution runs through Private’s Progress infectiously. We’re told “The British Army isn’t run by a lot of idiots, you know”; the film proceeds to show off the armed forces’ smarts by having conscripts queue for hours in the soaking rain to see the medic. Three years later, Carmichael, Price, Attenborough and Terry-Thomas would reunite for the sequel, and it would be one of the rare ones to trump the original in all respects. But Private’s Progress still deserves due respect, even if it would surely scoff at the same.