Saturday, 9 February 2013

Double Feature: Soft Beds, Hard Battles and The Last Chapter, 1974

Picture the scene it's 1974, and you're off to the cinema to see a film. This would mean a main feature and a supporting feature and, as the poster above shows, you may well have chosen to see Peter Sellers in Soft Beds, Hard Battles and Denholm Elliott in The Last Chapter.

So what was the main feature like? Well...

"Your husband comes first"
"After two years in a prisoner of war camp, I expect he will"

- Sample gag.

Soft Beds, Hard Battles (also known as Undercovers Hero - terrible title, that) is a WWII Parisian set comedy detailing the exploits of a popular, much visited, by all sides, brothel and their own surreptitious bit for the resistance and the war effort. It's a film I  saw only once as a child, yet strangely, it's so familiar I can recollect it very well.

You tend to get a good idea of how much of a dud a film is when you're instantly greeted by a voice over. And when that V/O appears on the soundtrack over scenes where the actors are clearly delivering now muted lines, you know the original script by director Roy Boulting and Leo Peeping Tom Marks must have been incredibly dodgy. 

This happens routinely in Soft Beds, Hard Battles, a film which seems to put all its stake on the talent of its star Peter Sellers. Sellers plays a staggering SIX roles in the film (inhabiting the stereotypes of a range of nations including Germans, British, Japanese, French) as well as providing that 'papering over the cracks' narration, in an American drawl. Banking on your star, when that star is as talented as Sellers is all well and good - indeed it worked for Boulting several times before - but you also have to account for that star's temperament and, in the early 70s, that wasn't good. Sellers was reeling from a string of flops and worse, was madly in love, again. This time with Liza Minnelli. His wooing of the American star meant that his attention was significantly elsewhere other than Shepperton Studios, and his late arrivals and early darts to be by her side saw the budget for what should be a modest farcical comedy escalate to over a million pounds and damn near bankrupt Boulting. It comes as no surprise that Roy Boulting would later claim that making this movie was one of the unhappiest experiences of his life.

But as much as a pain in the arse Sellers was, can you really blame him? I doubt my heart would be in this dross. It must have required a lot of professionalism to invest yourself into just one character, but six and a V/O too? The thing is there's a lot of Soft Beds, Hard Battles that is alright; it has an excellent pedigree of crew and of cast, an amusing enough set up and lavish sets and costumes...but what it is short of, unforgiveably, is laughs. Everything instantly feels tired and even what I presume all involved thought was the film's funniest set piece, the spiking of the German officers food and drink with deadly flatulence pills (literally "Gone with the wind" Oh yes, the V/O goes there) can raise little more than the briefest of smiles. 

Like trying to resolve which came first, the chicken or the egg, it's difficult to pinpoint just where the attempts at gaining humour from Nazi occupation arose from. There's so much of Soft Beds, Hard Battles that would later play out in 'Allo, 'Allo (the milk bottle spectacles, fedora and leather trenchcoated Gestapo officer Sellers plays is essentially Herr Flick from the BBC sitcom, as well as Ronald Lacey's role in Raiders of The Lost Ark) that originally one wonders why Boulting never thought to seek legal advice, until you realise there was scarcely anything original in this script to start with. It's a very post war, 60s/70s type of humour to poke fun at the perceived traits of our neighbouring countries on the continent and this film certainly approaches them with gusto, except in the case of the American character, a very boring drippy doofus and ostensible hero played by Rex Stallings; an actor so dull, wooden and bland to the point of irritating, its little wonder he seems to have disappeared after this. The film really drops the ball in missing the opportunity to stick the boot into the Stateside stereotype as well as all the rest. Though saying that, he does inadvertently kill an ally; first example of satirising the Americans unfortunate proclivity for 'friendly fire' incidents? 

There's even a vague vibe of Inglorious Basterds to this too - especially when Hitler, played by Sellers, shows up -  in fact Tarantino could make this as a relatively straight drama and it would probably be much much better. I wonder if it was just one of the many inspirations for his WWII blockbuster?

Ultimately this is a disappointing experience littered with groan inducing eye rolling double entendres, and it's sad to see Sellers talents already being squandered. However it's still a relatively polished affair and it's good fun spotting, amongst the prostitutes Jenny Hanley, Francoise Pascal and Rula Lenska, and amongst the Germans rent-a-Nazi Michael Sheard, Philp Madoc and Howard from Ever Decreasing Circles, Stanley Lebor.

And the supporting feature?

Well, The Last Chapter achieved the great irony of gaining better reception than the main feature!

It's a beguiling potent study on the creative struggle, the nature of the muse and the ultimate dilemma of making money or art for a writer.

Denholm Elliott plays a suitably Ian Fleming-esque misogynistic successful pulp fiction author setting down to work on his latest novel. We see his fiction come alive, with him as the hero and Geraldine Moffatt as the gun toting femme fatale whom he inevitably gains the upper hand over. His work is interrupted by a visitor, a young schoolgirl played by Susan Penhaligon who claims to be a fan and seems utterly enamoured. He allows her a five minute interview which she uses to gush over him and eventually proposition him sexually. Elliott sees through the ruse and brandishes her a prick tease before ordering her out. As she leaves she tells him what she really thinks; that he's a sad old man living out a fantasy life he could never do in reality and needs to realise his depictions of females are insulting and cliched. It gives him food for thought, he struggles to continue with his writing and he's further distracted when Penhaligon returns at his window topless.

Incensed he rushes out to confront her only to be faced with nine other females, all laughing at him. These are the nine muses and he realises it is time to take their advice. The film ends with Elliott accepting the New American Library's offer for his latest manuscript, though we feel it will be a significantly different novel to the pulp he has previously produced.

An interesting short, it was penned by John Fowles (The Magus, which was adapted into a terrible film with Michael Caine, and The Collector which was adapted into a rather good film with Caine's old flatmate Terence Stamp) and directed by 2nd Unit veteran David Tringham. Roy Boulting, the director of Soft Beds, Hard Battles, was so impressed with the accompanying feature that he helped edit it for theatrical release alongside his film.

And yes, a big part of the reasoning for blogging about The Last Chapter was to show Penhaligon naked. 


  1. "And yes, a big part of the reasoning for blogging about The Last Chapter was to show Penhaligon naked."

    Best reason for a blog entry ever - fact. Thanks again, you've made my day.

  2. Boobs! ;)

    Btw I've nominated you for a Liebster Award. Check out my blog post!

  3. Knew you'd be pleased Martin!

    Bob! Trust you to find the post with boobs in ;) Ooh ta, will tackle that at some stage this weekend