(Movie Review by Oshram ) The premise of “Two Men Went to War” is something only the English could dream up: two men, Private Cuthbertson (Leo Bill) and Sergeant King (Kenneth Cranham, who looks disturbingly like Leo McKern on the box) are serving in a platoon of dentists in Britain’s army during World War II. Both men yearn for more action than their post is likely to give them, and while not exactly kindred spirits, they end up joining forces when the Sergeant is passed over for a more active post in France. Soon, both men find themselves — wholly at the sergeant’s urging — involved in a completely unsanctioned two-man invasion of occupied France.
“Two Men Went to War” is more a character piece than anything else, and in many ways it’s an ideal low-budget film. It features a sound idea, a tight script, and much of the film consists of the titular two men wandering around the admittedly beautiful countryside. The meat of the film is the relationship between King and Cuthbertson, how they at first are superior and subordinate, before coming to know one another as simply men. There’s a subplot with a surly Winston Churchill (David Ryall) and one of his military adjutants, Derek Jacobi, bemoaning how poorly the war is going, which only really comes together at the end. Much of the film, though, centers on the misadventures of the two men in France.
“Two Men Went to War” is not a comedy, though it could have been, and the film is permeated with the droll British sense of humor. (Private Cuthbertson is taken hostage by a French farmwoman, who, despite the fact that they cannot understand each other, tries to seduce him anyway, only to end up giving him a pie). And a scene where the two men manage to take over a railway station box is both clever and amusing, like much of the film.
But really, the success of the piece rests with Bill and Cranham, leaving them to carry the film on performance alone. In this instance, we are in good hands. Leo Bill lends a wonderful naivet’ to Private Cuthbertson, imbuing him with an inner strength that is well hidden by his nebbish exterior. Crahman is excellent as the stereotypical (on these shores, anyway) Brit officer with the stiff upper lip who is all God, King, and Country, but who is of course more human than he would ever like to admit. The two leads have excellent chemistry, and they play off one another superbly. Though both men are made to look a little foolish in the end, it hardly matters, because we get to know these two as heroic and brave men (albeit a little misguided) nonetheless.
In an American film, the subject matter of “Two Men” would not have been handled quite so deftly; the men would not be loveable screw-ups, but rather buff heroes forced to take out an entire town of Germans. “Two Men Went to War” suffers from no such delusions of grandeur, portraying the final assault as a confused mess, much as these things invariably were back then, and displaying that the two men who went to war were heroes in spirit, if not so much in deed.
“Two Men Went to War” is an excellent film. I got a screener copy, so I’m not sure if it’s available yet, but it’s well worth your investment, from the excellent performances to the beautiful countryside. Be warned that the volume on the DVD is very low, and so you’ll have to turn it up to hear many whispered conversations, only to have a Panzer rumble by and vibrate everything off your TV stand. Fortunately that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise very satisfying film.
John Henderson (director)
CAST: Kenneth Cranham …. Sgt. Peter King
Leo Bill …. Pvt. Leslie Cuthbertson
Rosanna Lavelle …. Emma Fraser
Phyllida Law …. Faith
James Fleet …. Maj. Bates
David Ryall …. Winston Churchill