Thursday, November 01, 2007

Carry On Columbus

Carry On Columbus posterSo was Carry on Columbus Britain's contribution to the cinematic celebrations of 1992's five-hundred year anniversary of Columbus's first voyage? If so, it's a pretty pathetic offering.

The "Carry On" films were never really very funny, certainly not compared to, say, the Ealing Comedies. But they were of their time and illustrated a certain English low-brow kitsch of the 1950s and 1960s. They were the cinematic equivalent of naughty postcards bought in rundown seaside resorts. But that age was well and truly over by the time the series limped to a halt after almost thirty titles, with what are universally agreed to be the dampest of squibs in Carry on England (1976) and Carry on Emannuelle (1978).

The "Comic Strip" gang of alternative comedians that burst on to the scene in the 1980s seemed funny at first. But the novelty soon faded; and in any case, were Alexei Sayle or Rik Mayall (say) actually ever all that amusing?

In any case, Carry on Columbus is fruit of a misguided attempt to update the "Carry On" formula by breathing into it the fresh spirit of the Comic Strip. Unfortunately, what results is a pale imitation of the original, too respectful by half and too happy to rely on the lamest of double entendres and the shallowest of verbal jesting. Any film in which a line such as "Did you give it to her?" is meant to be amusing deserves to fail, and to fail badly. Had the film been a parody of the "Carry On" spirit, rather than its attempted reincarnation, and perhaps therefore traded more on the critical detachment that Julian Clary (the one half-bright spark here) gives to his role, that the film might have been rescued. But alas, no.

The strange thing also is that the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s gained fame initially for its dismantling of existing shibboleths, its political verve, and its cavalier disrespect for much beloved English cultural sensibilities. "Five Go Mad in Dorset", for instance, skewered Enid Blyton almost perfectly, catching the mood of a disenchanted country in the early 1980s, secure only when examining its own insecurities. One would have thought that the history of European imperialism might have merited similar treatment, simultaneously cavalier and thoughtful. But again, alas, no. The weak jokes about the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, are simply a leaf taken out of Sellars and Yeatman's philosophy that "history is all you can remember," without any of the potential political analysis of power, repression, and xenophobia that could have enabled some connection to the present, as exhibited by the best moments of, say, "Blackadder Goes Forth".

Perhaps the one imaginative aspect of this film is the portrayal of American Indians as street-smart wisecrackers who remark to themselves in broad New York accents about how primitive are the gold-grubbing Europeans who have landed on their shores. But this comes only after an hour of tired costume drama that revels only in cleavage and homophobia. Moreover, the portrayal is inconsistent, as the indigenous have to be kitted out with an obligatory shaman, as well as propositions to bed the visiting countess. They do have the last laugh, as they send Columbus and crew packing with what is literally fool's gold. But as with the rest of the film, it's not really much of a laugh in the end.

Carry on Columbus stillThis movie is all about the decline of (one strand at least of) English mass culture, its descent into toothlessly inadvertent self-parody, lacking any other pretensions, political, cinematic, or even humorous. It's a misfiring piece of nostalgia for an England that should have been safely consigned to the past.

The Whippet Inn claims that this film did better at the box office than either Christopher Columbus: The Discovery or Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Whatever the demerits of these other movies... Ugh!

YouTube Link: the film's opening credits.

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