Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 August (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

‘They will die the death of a thousand cuts!’
‘Oh! But that’s horrible!’
‘Not at all my little desert flower, the British are used to cuts!’

The Carry On team’s sixteenth film turns out to be one of its best. Carry On… Up the Khyber had one of the more generous budgets of the entries and married the quick wit of Talbot Rothwell’s screenplay to a story of insurrection and manners in the British Raj. Gleefully satirising any number of boys’ own yarns concerning the Northwest frontier, whilst poking fun at the attitude of the Empire builders from these very shores, it’s great fun from beginning to end, packed with riotous gags and fine performances.

I really enjoyed BBC4’s Kenneth Williams night last week, with its repeated Reputations documentary and another screening of Fantabulosa!, the dramatisation featuring some mesmerising mimicry by Michael Sheen. The former focused on the Carry On series as both the crowning glory and death knell of Williams’s career. Whilst the films put Ken’s bread on the table, he found the work degrading and a long way from the acting world he wanted to break into, which is a shame as he’s often the best thing in them. He’s on top form here as the Khasi of Khalabar, the local ruler who leads a revolt against the British when he learns that the ‘Skirted Devils’ (the kilt wearing soldiers, known as the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment) have taken to wearing underpants, proof of their lack of superhuman strength.

But he isn’t the best thing in this outing. That honour belongs squarely in the lap of Sir Sidney James, playing governor Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond. James reins in his usual ‘everyman’ shtick as the dignitary with far more airs than graces, trying to hold together a faltering British position by sharing flannel with the Khasi and only occasionally delivering his trademark laugh, normally to great effect. Worthy mentions go to Joan Sims as his blousey wife, Terry Scott’s over-zealous Sergeant Major with shades of Zulu‘s Nigel Green, Charles Hawtrey as the most unlikely frontier defender imaginable, and Bernard Bresslaw playing local warlod, Bungdit Din. Jim Dale was carrying on elsewhere whilst this was being filmed, so Roy Castle took the straight role as the dashing Captain.

Also brilliant is Peter Butterworth, an irregular team member who here plays Brother Belcher, a Christian missionary with a fatal eye for the ladies. His best moments come in the film’s standout scene. As the Khasi’s army starts laying waste to the Governor’s Palace, those inside settle down to dinner, exercising the stiffest of upper lips as the building collapses around them… All except Brother Belcher, who represents the sentiments of the audience and can’t believe the way everyone is ignoring the cannon shots and collapsing exteriors, finally turning to the bottle for solace.

Costs were fought off by filming the Khyber Pass scenes in Snowdonia, indeed the frontier is simply a gate on Snowdon’s Watkin Pass that’s guarded by Hawtrey. But it’s a laugh to think of such a legendary point in the Empire in such a way, and the film in general pays affectionate homage and pokes good-natured fun at both the real-life Raj and other, more serious films covering the period. There’s a danger of all the ribaldry being at the expense of politically correct attitudes, however this is a film approaching its 45th year and anyone chiding it for the white actors playing native Indians and dodgy punmanship can just Fakir off. It’s as close to the bone as Hawtrey in military uniform serving as a comment on the British army’s competence. There isn’t one. Its lack of bite is something to be cherished in an age of more ‘knowing’ comedies. Some fans have gone so far as to form their own 3rd Foot and Mouth regiment in honour of the film, which should act as a lasting comment on the lasting regard in which it’s held.

Carry On… Up the Khyber: ****

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