A sincere but inapt and overlong (103 minutes) film of humorist Spike Milligan's war memoir of the same name, Adolf Hitler - My Part In His Downfall (1973) tries hard but only rarely captures the essence of the author's screamingly funny book, the first of seven volumes. Multi-talented Jim Dale stars as young Spike in the film, while Milligan portrays his own father. However, that seems to have been the end of Milligan's direct involvement. It might have worked better had he adapted his own material and/or directed the film. Then again, his style of literary humor would seem nearly impossible to adequately adapt into a narrative feature film. In Milligan's case the laughter is in the telling; the same material just doesn't work as well in other hands.
The DVD arrives courtesy of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" of DVD-Rs, manufactured-on-demand discs. Happily, the movie gets a splendid 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer, and comes with a similarly enhanced original trailer, tossed in as an extra feature.
What prompted its release is anyone's guess. It couldn't have been a blockbuster in Britain much less America, and the back-cover text doesn't seem aware of Milligan's best-selling book or of Milligan himself, referring only to the "fun-loving trumpet player" hero. Top-billed Jim Dale, Arthur Lowe, and Bill Maynard were (and still are) known almost exclusively in Britain, though Dale did a few American movies and Broadway shows later on.
The movie is reasonably faithful to the book (which the credits identify as an "original novel") in terms of story, ending slightly before the book does, but not of its free-form structure. The book was a jumble of anecdotes, memorabilia, photographs, and sketches. In the movie, young trumpet player Milligan (Dale) is at home with his father (Milligan) and mother (Pat Coombs, Mrs. Salt in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) when the BBC announces the Nazi invasion of Poland.
The movie skips Milligan's attempts to avoid the draft, instead leaping straight into his basic training with the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery at Bexhill-on-Sea, and stays there for the rest of the picture. In the final, effective scene, Spike and the other soldiers wait for a train on the station platform, everyone joking nervously and saying good-bye. The train arrives, everyone gets in, and the train simply pulls away. All this is without music or discernable dialogue but the message is plain: a lot of these boys won't be coming home.
The book continues with Milligan's arrival in Algeria in early 1943 though the movie's ending is satisfactory. And, truth be told, the budget was probably too small to allow location filming anyway.
The biggest problem with the film of Adolf Hitler - My Part in His Downfall is that it's less like Milligan's book and more like a typical modestly-budgeted British comedy from the early 1970s. It's shot that way, cast that way - as one IMDb reviewer points out, all the recruits are 15 years too old - and rarely feels authentically period, so much so that it's a challenge suspending one's disbelief. There's even a good but hopelessly contemporary song sung by Dale, "It's Gonna Be a Good War." John Boorman's similarly autobiographical Hope and Glory (1987) does this subject matter better.
The film barrages the viewer with irreverent, anti-establishment humor and much of it is pretty funny but it's also all over the map, some of it lifted directly from Milligan's book, other scenes more like a British variation of Buck Privates (1941). Out of the latter is a broadly done boxing match and war games sequence straight out of Abbott & Costello's movie, with Windsor Davies playing a kind of Scottish Nat Pendleton-type nemesis. Though fairly enjoyable it's like oil on water coupled with Milligan's lighter touch. Mostly though, the movie version is not that much different from other army comedies strangely in vogue at the time: Dad's Army (1971 film based on the TV show*), Our Miss Fred (1972), Up the Front (1972), and Carry On England (in which Windsor Davies played a similar part, 1976). The range in quality between those and this one is slight. Director Norman Cohen, apparently no relation to British film executive Nat Cohen, also directed the movie version of Dad's Army and other modest-budget comedies.
Still, there are flashes of great wit. During the war games, Spike radios in to HQ about reaching a checkpoint, to which their C.O. enthusiastically tells them, "According to the map, you should be on the top of a hill overlooking a beautiful green valley." Cut to Spike and his men, at the lifeless bottom of a gravel pit.
Oddly enough, the picture does a better job with its turn-on-a-dime flashes of personal tragedy. One of the best scenes has Milligan and his comrades coming upon a downed German bomber, and their shock at the mutilated corpses. "You'll soon get used to dead meat," their sergeant (Bill Maynard) reassures them. Later on there's a charming, bittersweet scene where Spike's family share a toast in their tiny bomb shelter, the last time they'd all be together for years.
Squint and Jim Dale looks a little like Milligan did back then and at times he often nails his subject's mannerisms and voice, but he also plays the comedy in his own, rubber-faced way.
Video & Audio
Adolf Hitler - My Part In His Downfall looks just fine throughout, the 16:9 enhanced widescreen image (1.78:1 here) doing the picture justice. The region 1 DVD-R has above average English-only audio; no subtitles or alternate audio is available.
Included is an enhanced trailer that, like the film, tries hard to sell the material but which doesn't quite do the job.
Fans of Spike Milligan will want to see this, warts and all. It's not a successful adaptation but on its own terms is all right, and flashes of the original material peek through here and there. Rent It.
* The star of Dad's Army, Arthur Lowe, is in this as well, delivering a nicely nuanced performance as Spike's respected C.O.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.