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  • Ravi Swami

Cahiers Carry On..."Carry On Up The Khyber", Dir:Gerald Thomas, 1968

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Given the protracted and uncertain nature of lockdown it's hard to believe that I accompanied a friend to see the heavingly un-PC 1968 "Carry On" film at the Sands Cinema Club only last year - un-PC as it appears now, I have fond memories of watching it on TV as a kid and it has to be seen in the context of a lot of old "India Hands" working through their issues about colonialism.

This is therefore a bit of deviation from the usual lockdown movie post and the result of a bit of fun after seeing the film and essentially sending it up as a fictitious article in the French film criticism magazine "Cahiers Du Cinema" that attracted contributors such as Truffaut and Godard - I used Google translate to convert the text to French and so here is the English original :)

I had the special pleasure of seeing M. Gerald Thomas’ latest cinematic masterpiece, “Carry On Up The Khyber”, with M. Kirk Hendry at The Cinema Museum, London.

It is clear from the outset that no expense has been spared to deliver an exotic cinematic confection – the latest in a long line of comedies of manners – in every area of production, from the scrupulously detailed research into native costumes, customs and habits to the authentic sounding character names, such as “The Khasi of Kalabar”, “Princess Jelhi” and “Bungdit Din”, as well as a careful respect for religion in names such as “Shivoo”, that instantly transport the eager viewer to the sights, sounds and smells of Colonial India.

It was a rare delight to see once again the ensemble cast of actors familiar from previous “Carry On” films, arguably Britains’ greatest contribution to world cinema – M.Sid James, Mme. Joan Sims and M. Charles Hawtrey and others, who uniformly deliver finely honed performances that succeed in adding nuance and depth to the narrative, in particular M. Sid James, whose signature “Ack Ack Ack” as he surveys the décolletage prominently on display in scenes that anticipate the wilder imaginings of Warhol, will live on in the dreams of this reviewer.

Gerald Thomas, the director, has cited the influence of Godard, Bunuel and to a lesser extent, Bresson, in his work and this is evident where at times the film reaches the surrealist heights of Bunuel’s unfinished masterpiece, also set in Colonial India, “Un Poulet Vindaloo”, an intended sequel to “Un Chien Andalou”, where poultry take center stage, and where the dialectic narrative takes the form of a collage, crafted with an uncommon and cinematic rigour.

Pathos turns to Bathos and back again during the course of the narrative, triggered by the loss of  M.Hawtreys’ “Private James Widdle” undergarments to M. Bernard Bresslaws’ “Bungdit Din” and it is upon this superficially threadbare premise that M.Thomas weaves a fast moving tale with gusto.

Kenneth Williams delivers a performance of almost Byzantine proportions as “The Khasi of Kalabar” exhibiting range from gentle irony to genuine menace conveyed solely by nostrils that linger in the memory long after the film like Dali’s lips of Mae West or Man Ray’s Lips of Lee Miller.

It remains for M.Peter Butterworth as the hapless missionary “Brother Belcher” to deliver a tour de force roller–coaster performance as he wrestles with the paradox that forms the very core of the narrative, at turns delirious when in the company of the Khasi’s courtesans and neurotic when wrestling with his troubled conscience.

Many scenes in the film are nods to previous cinematic commentaries on the fragility of Britains’ colonial adventure, none more so than the climactic dinner scene as cannon fire rains down on the diners to the strains of a 4 piece musical ensemble – a surrealistic subversion echoing the mise en scene of Godard, improvisation of Bresson and is the very definition of the word “fundamental” so neatly echoed in the title of the film that marks the zenith of the Carry On series and is thus film-making par excellence.

Ravi Swami 2019

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