War Movie Mondays: ‘What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?’

This week’s pick is the classic Blake Edwards 1966 comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? which stars legendary comedian Dick Shawn of The Producers (Captain Lionel Cash), James Coburn Cross of Iron (Lt. Christian), Aldo Ray Men in War (Sgt. Rizzo), Sergio Fantoni Von Ryan’s Express (Captain Oppo), Harry Morgan T.V.s M*A*S*H* (Maj. Pott), Giovanna Ralli (Gina Romano), Jay Novello (Mayor Romano), Leon Askin Hogan’s Heroes (Col. Kastorp) and Carroll O’ Connor Kelly’s Heroes (Gen. Bolt). The film was written by William Peter Blatty The Exorcist.

The film is set in 1943 when the Americans and Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily to drive out the entrenched German army which had retreated from North Africa a few months prior as a result of Allied victory. Captain Lionel Cash (Shawn) is placed in command of Charlie Company, a band of misfits in need of R&R and are none too thrilled to be given another mission. General Bolt (O’ Connor) believes that there is some enemy resistance in the little village of Valerno.

The all too eager to prove himself Captain Cash, excepts the mission and plans to attack the village immediately. Cash introduces himself to the new company and its commander Lt. Christian (Coburn) whose insubordination and carefree attitude are the polar opposite of Cash and his “90 day wonder” mentality. Cash rounds up his company and they head off towards their objective.

When Cash and his men arrive at the sleepy village of Valerno, they find the town to be completely empty. Cash and his men find the townspeople and a garrison of Italian soldiers holding a soccer match which is interrupted when the ball lands on the bayonet of an American soldier in disbelief of such an impressive kick.

The towns people are angered to have their game interrupted and angrily swarm the Americans. The potential riot is thwarted by Captain Fausto Oppo (Fantoni) who agrees to surrender his troops to Captain Cash but under one condition, the town is allowed to hold its annual wine festival. Cash is outraged at such a demand and the unconventional Christian and his wisecracking adjutant Sgt. Rizzo (played by the scene stealing great character actor Aldo Ray) think its a marvelous idea and it will help in relations with the townspeople too.

Cash still refuses and Oppo gives him the “Italian salute” which Cash is informed by Christian that the Italian Captain has just told him to fornicate with himself. A hilarious scene, with great reactions from Shawn and others who look as if they had to do several takes due to each man trying to contain his laughter.

The festival goes off with such a hit that soldiers and civilians are rejoicing in the streets. The mayor of the village (Jay Novello) introduces the uptight and reluctant to join the festivities Cash to his beautiful and charming daughter Gina (Ralli) who wines and romances the Captain in order for Christian and the others to have a good time. Lt. Christian sends word to headquarters that they are meeting “minor resistance” in order to disguise the festivities. By the next morning the village is covered in confetti, and littered with passed out American and Italian troops. Lt. Christian comes to with a massive hangover and discovers his men have swapped uniforms with the Italian soldiers during a game of poker.

After the report of Charlie Company encountering minor resistance, Major Pott (Morgan) arrives in the village to confirm it. Lt. Christian and the men try to cover up the evidence of the festival in fear of HQ finding out that they have been fraternizing with the enemy. Sgt. Rizzo and the other men, dressed in Italian uniforms take Maj. Pott hostage in order to bide time so that General Bolt doesn’t find out. Lt. Christian, Oppo, and the others realize that the only way to cover up last night’s festivities is to fake a battle in order to keep up appearances.

An American reconnaissance plane flies over the village and sees the pretend carnage below. The photos make their way back to general Bolt who proclaims “My god! Their fighting hand to hand in the streets.” The Germans also see this as an opportunity to also attack and to capture the village and the American invaders too. The rest of the film is pure comedic genius as the Americans and their new found Italian allies try to foil the Germans from taking the town, and making sure that General Bolt never finds out what really happened at Valerno.

The performances in the film are absolutely fantastic. Edward’s directing is flawless and reflects his comedic genius behind the camera. As stated earlier so many scenes in the film had numerous takes due to the actors barely able to contain themselves in certain scenes. One scene is where Captain Cash awakens next morning in Gina’s bed, the mayor’s daughter and is delirious. Lt. Christian informs the Captain of their situation and Cash is completely dazed and out of it. When Lt. Christian reads a message from Bolt that Cash is to continue the fighting until reinforcements arrive.

Cash rips up the order and begins eating it, then wipes the corners of his mouth while staring off into space. Harry Morgan, Sergio Fantoni, and Aldo Ray round out the amazing supporting characters. Morgan especially, when he becomes lost in the catacombs below the town and is slowly driven insane. He finds the helmet and shield of a Roman soldier and parades through the catacombs while trying to find his way out. Absolutely brilliant.

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? is available on DVD through MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

 

 

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