Excellent period detail and elegant cinematography are the elements that stand out in John Henderson’s curiously feeble wartime comedy. Based on an actual occurrence (and Raymond Foxall’s book about it), “Two Men Went to War” is about two British soldiers–a grumpy, put-out-to-pasture sergeant and a rather goofy private unwillingly assigned to the dental corps–who, at a low point of national morale in 1942, went AWOL, swiped a fishing boat, and engaged in their own, totally unauthorized little invasion of France. As recounted here, their expedition, intended to destroy a German battleship with a well-placed hand grenade, achieves nothing more than the destruction of a kitchen at a fortified listening post, but it accidentally provides a diversion for a separately-launched paratroop raid, thus earning the men, who are court-martialed for desertion after their return, recognition from a grateful Winston Churchill and resultant celebrity, as well as acquittal.
Without reference to how historically accurate the picture is or isn’t, the makers are obviously trying for a wispy, ersatz Ealing sensibility, which unfortunately isn’t realized with the skill that the old company regularly demonstrated in the fifties. Partially that’s the result of the leading actors, who don’t have the personality or the chemistry the piece needs if it’s really to take wing. As Sergeant King, Kenneth Cranham–who from a certain angle looks very much like Rip Torn–has the necessary gruffness, but doesn’t bring much humor to his performance. By contrast, Leo Bill, as Private Cuthbertson, is all gangly ineptitude–a hyperactive Stan Laurel who never achieves that great clown’s mixture of simplicity and charm. But the script by Richard Everett and Christopher Villiers has to be blamed, too: it never successfully blends the supposedly tense incidents (the men inadvertently manage to derail a troop train after taking over a signal tower, and try to steal food from an isolated farm) with the loopy, “Hogan’s Heroes”-style farcical elements (plenty of bickering between the fellows). And as so often happens, it lionizes Winston Churchill, played rather archly by David Ryall, to such an extent that the scenes involving his underground office take on a hagiographical tone. More surprisingly, the usually reliable Derek Jacobi overdoes the smirking smugness as Churchill’s military aide and official letter-opener; he struts and minces far too theatrically in the big finale, when he appears as the PM’s representative at the guys’ trial, being presided over by their martinet of a commanding officer (Julian Glover, who’s equally unrestrained), but throughout he’s too affected. As if to compensate, Rosanna Lavelle is sweetly eccentric as a young woman who links up with Cuthbertson in the English coastal village where they commandeer their boat, and Phylidda Law convincingly conveys an air of exhausted service as Churchill’s faithful secretary.
Still, production designers Sophie Becker and Steve Carter, art director Sam Stokes and costumer Jill Taylor earn kudos for giving the film an impressively authentic look on what must have been a modest budget, and John Ignatius complements their work well with his smooth widescreen cinematography. (The British have a special skill along these lines–just think of the many gorgeous period pieces they’ve produced for television.) If only the content of “Two Men Went to War” were the equal of its appearance, the picture would have emerged a winner. But that has to be filed under the heading of “Might Have Beens.”