Though today Hammer Films is remembered primarily for its Gothic horror pictures, back in the late-1950s the company was producing nearly as many war movies, both comedy and drama, as horror films. Don't Panic Chaps (1959) is one such example, a minor but pleasant little farce about British and German soldiers sharing an idyllic little island in the Adriatic in 1943. Based on an apparently one-off radio play by Michael Corston and Ronald Holroyd, the picture wisely confines its story to a small cast and a limited scale in keeping with its small (£75,000) budget.
A manufactured-on-demand, Sony "Choice Collection" release, Don't Panic Chaps ("Don't Panic Chaps!" in some of the ads but not on the film itself) is presented in a very crisp, enhanced widescreen black and white transfer bereft of extra features or even menu screens.
Dennis Price, best known as the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is top-billed but he doesn't turn up until more than a third of the way into the picture. Instead, most of the focus is on four misfit, bumbling soldiers: Pvt. Finch (George Cole), Sgt. Bolter (Percy Hebert), Pvt. Ackroyd (Harry Fowler), and their commanding officer, Second Lt. Brown (Thorley Walters). Ahead of the Allied invasion of Italy, they're assigned to set up an observation post on a remote island.
After some misadventures training for the mission and getting their little rubber raft from a British submarine to shore, they reach the small island. In an amusing scene, Finch decides to go skinny-dipping in the Adriatic, only to run into a like-minded German soldier, Sgt. Schmidt (Gerlan Klauber), also naked. The Brits eventually find an old, abandoned monastery fully-stocked and occupied by a small German contingent. As it happens, there are the same number of Germans as British soldiers, the others being Oxford-educated Capt. Von Krisling (Dennis Price), Pvt. Meister (George Murcell), and Pvt. Voss (Thomas Foulkes).
Von Krisling proposes a truce, arguing there's no point to any needless bloodshed, and the two sides agree that whichever army returns to the island in force, the other side will surrender to it. Traditional soldiers Bolter and Meister oppose the truce, fight one another (the cheapness of the film is apparent here - no stuntmen) and eventually decide to escape from the island in order to return to the fighting. But the others amiably pair off, with accident-prone intellectual Finch finding a like-minded soul in archeologist Voss, who's found Pterodactyl fossils nearby. Ackroyd's amateurish attempts to cook for the men impresses experienced chef Meister, and the refined Capt. Von Krisling enjoys the company of stuffy bore 2nd Lt. Brown.
In what plays like a shoehorned subplot, a beautiful young woman who speaks neither English nor German, Elsa (future Bond girl Nadja Regin, who appears in From Russia with Love and Goldfinger), washes ashore. Her appearance adds nothing to the film's story, but she's easy on the eyes to be sure.
Ex-servicemen in their thirties by 1959 were attracted to rose-colored service comedies like Don't Panic Chaps. During this period Hammer also made Up the Creek (1957), I Only Arsked (1958), and Watch It, Sailor! (1960) as part of their regular annual program, as well as war dramas including The Camp on Blood Island (1957), Ten Seconds to Hell (1958), and Yesterday's Enemy (1959), some of which were quite successful, though most of the comedies didn't "travel" well outside of Britain. Don't Panic Chaps was part of Hammer's long-term financing deal with Columbia Pictures, but it appears never to have been released theatrically in the United States, though it might have been shown on American television. (The skinny-dipping scene wouldn't have made it past American censors, however.)
The movie is pleasant, particularly in its basic theme of peaceful co-existence, but it's hardly uproarious, either. What's amusing about the film is due more to its appealing cast, especially Cole, actors who knew their way around this sort of material, more than the material itself.
Though technically a Hammer film, its cast, crew, and the Walton Studios' stages used for the production have little direct connection to the company. The film was a co-production with A.C.T., which appears to have been a production arm of the Association of Cinematograph Technicians, a trade union, though little information about their decade of making B-pictures is available and remains largely unknown to this reviewer.
Video & Audio
Don't Panic Chaps looks just fine, with reasonably impressive detail, rich blacks, and good contrast throughout. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen transfer and is the complete, 84 ½-minute British cut. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens. The movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Not great but reasonably enjoyable, Don't Panic Chaps is a pleasant little army farce fans of such pictures and Hammer completists should enjoy, and the transfer is good. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.