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Should I Watch..? Dad's Army (1971)

Updated on May 25, 2017
Poster for the film
Poster for the film | Source

What's the big deal?

Dad's Army is a period comedy film released in 1971 and is based on the much-loved British TV sitcom of the same name created by Jimmy Perry and David Croft. It is based around the creation and various misadventures of a platoon of the Home Guard, a real-life military project during World War Two to enable those too young or old to enlist in the army to serve as British-based volunteers in case of a Nazi invasion. The film was one of a number of sitcoms transferred over to the big screen at the time and although the film met with mixed criticism when it was released, it became the fifth highest-grossing film in the UK that year. Filmed between the third and fourth series, it sees nearly all of the TV cast reprise their roles in the film and the story is loosely based around a number of early episodes. A reboot, also called Dad's Army (1), was released in 2016 and received mostly negative reviews.

Watchable

3 stars for Dad's Army (1971)

What's it about?

In 1940, Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden made a radio broadcast urging those not enlisted in the army to unite and form the Local Defence Volunteers (later renamed as the Home Guard) to act as a secondary defence against any possible Nazi invasion of the UK. Local bank manager George Mainwaring and his chief clerk Arthur Wilson immediately head to the police station to sign up and are greeted with a scene of chaos as dozens of men overwhelm the officers. Characteristically, Mainwaring organises the men and registers them in the nearby church hall and soon, the Walmington-on-Sea branch of the Home Guard is established with Mainwaring in charge.

Without any training or equipment, Mainwaring is forced to rely on the improvised and inventive creations of Lance-Corporal Jack Jones - which invariably go wrong. Forced to attend a training camp along with other branches of the Home Guard after the Dunkirk evacuation, Mainwaring's patience begins to run thin as the men under his command display breath-taking levels of incompetence. But as the Nazi menace looks like it may actually land in Walmngton-on-Sea, can this rag-tag bunch of part-time soldiers manage to come good in the face of the German war machine?

A classic scene from the original TV show

Main Cast

Actor
Role
Arthur Lowe
Captain Mainwaring
John Le Mesurier
Sergeant Wilson
Clive Dunn
Lance Corporal Jones
Ian Lavender
Private Pike
John Laurie
Private Frazer
James Beck
Private Walker
Arnold Ridley
Private Godfrey

Technical Info

Director
Norman Cohen
Screenplay
Jimmy Perry & David Croft *
Running Time
95 minutes
Release Date (UK)
12th March, 1971
Genre
Comedy, War
* based on the idea of Jimmy Perry
Lowe (left) and Le Mesurier (right) exchange words in "Dad's Army"
Lowe (left) and Le Mesurier (right) exchange words in "Dad's Army" | Source

What's to like?

Part of the joy of the original sit-com was the fact that it was a TV show that the whole family could watch together, part of the reason that repeats still regularly appear on BBC schedules today. Thankfully, the film retains much of the show's charm from Dunn's excitably enthusiastic veteran to Laurie's doom-obsessed Scotsman. And at the heart of it all was the unspoken class war between Lowe and Le Mesurier - without the annoyance of a studio audience laughing, their banter suddenly becomes crisper, sharper and more biting. Of course, there is a heavy reliance on farce and slapstick but the show was always far cleverer than that and the film is equally as smart.

Naturally, the cast are superb in their roles as you'd expect from a group who had already performed in three series before the film. Established actors like Lowe do stand out from the more inexperienced members like Beck and Lavender but it's impossible to watch imagining anyone else in their roles. It's also surprisingly authentic - the uniforms and vehicles of the time all look box-fresh while the film isn't afraid to look at the dark times the film was set in. The threat of Nazi invasion, unseen in the show but brought to life here, seems genuinely worrying and there's enough gallows humour to suggest that even the character realised the hopelessness of their situation.

Fun Facts

  • A sequel was suggested but ultimately abandoned. That film would have seen the platoon at a country manor house and discovered a secret U-Boat base underneath.
  • Columba Pictures insisted on a number of changes such as filming in Chalfont St Giles instead of Thetford and Liz Fraser being cast as Mrs Mavis Pike as opposed to series regular Janet Davies. Not all the changes were welcomed.
  • Lowe had a bizarre clause written into his contract stating that at no point was he to appear without his trousers on. This is why Wilson is leading the platoon during the march where they change from their civvies into uniform.

What's not to like?

Sitcoms are notoriously difficult to relocate to the big screen and I'm afraid that Dad's Army does fall into a couple of familiar traps. Resisting the urge to change too much beyond the odd cast member, the film instead sticks too closely to the show's existing formula - meaning that what should be one single narrative feels more like three episodes of the show written into the one. I expected more from Perry & Croft who also wrote shows like It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Hi-de-Hi!. It felt, dare I say it, a little bit lazy.

The other issue with the movie was actually part of the strength of the show. By appealing to all viewers, it never managed to be riotously funny or edgy enough. Like the show, it's a safe and harmless watch that is fun and enjoyable but never threatens to push the boundaries the way you'd want it to. It's very middle-of-the-road. These days, it has a misty-eyed nostalgia behind it and for those familiar with the show then you'll find little to complain about. But I don't think the film does enough to attract new viewers, not that the show is short of fans.

The film maintains the show's sense of farce, although you expect to hear studio laughter throughout
The film maintains the show's sense of farce, although you expect to hear studio laughter throughout | Source

Should I watch it?

Fans of the show will get more out of Dad's Army than non-viewers but the film remains a perfectly pleasant way of spending time with your family. Younger viewers will enjoy the slapstick antics of Jones while Mainwaring and Wilson's thinly-disguised contempt for each other will amuse the more grown-up viewer. It's not a classic effort in the way the TV show is remembered but the film is an enjoyable march down memory lane.

Great For: fans of the show, WW2 enthusiasts, filling TV schedules

Not So Great For: anyone hoping the reboot would be better, former members of the Home Guard, the Germans

What else should I watch?

The Seventies saw literally dozens of shows transferred to the big screen with varying degrees of success. The likes of Are You Being Served?, Bless This House, Love Thy Neighbour and Steptoe And Son all saw film spin-offs that today look remarkably dated, if not downright offensive in the case of racist sit-com Love Thy Neighbour. But they were hugely popular at the time - On The Buses managed to spin-off an entire trilogy of films...

Today, it is less common to do this but some still try nonetheless. In The Loop (2) is a biting political satire spun-off from BBC political comedy The Thick Of It while the spoof TV presenter Alan Partridge got a film in 2013, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (3), with another apparently in development. But things can still go horribly wrong, as those unfortunate enough to see Mrs Brown's Boy D'Movie (4) will testify...

Appendices

  1. Dad's Army (2016)
  2. In The Loop
  3. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
  4. Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie

© 2015 Benjamin Cox

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