Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1974)
“After Young Winston – Young Milligan!”
Director: Norman Cohen
Cast: Jim Dale, Arthur Lowe, Bill Maynard
Synopsis: London, 1940. Aspiring jazz musician and future comedy legend Terence “Spike” Milligan reluctantly obeys his call-up and joins the Royal Artillery regiment at Bexhill
Spike Milligan (Life of Brian) was a peculiarly British comedian and, even in his homeland, generally polarised public opinion. I don’t think the Americans really understood him. The fact that Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall doesn’t usually appear in any of the US house-brick-sized capsule review books seems to prove the point. I never really took to him myself — his humour was by turns too silly and surreal for me — but he always possessed the ability to surprise you into laughter, and this film, based on his memoirs, probably represents one of his more mainstream pieces of work.
Milligan plays his own father here, while his part is played by a too-old Jim Dale (Carry on Cabby, Carry on Spying). Milligan was twenty-two in 1940, but Dale was fifteen years older when Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall was made. In fact nearly all his fellow army recruits look like they’re in their mid-thirties. Despite a tendency to mug too often, Dale nevertheless gives a good account of himself, capturing the flavour of Milligan’s madcap behaviour without resorting to imitation or parody. Milligan always has a snappy comeback to everything here, but the trouble is that, more often than not, what he says just isn’t that funny. He’s supported by a large cast though, many of whom will be familiar to British TV viewers from the 1970s. There’s dear old Arthur Lowe (Kind Hearts and Coronets), who essentially plays a slightly less pompous version of Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring without the glasses; Geoffrey Hughes, who would go on to become Stan Ogden’s best mate Eddie Yeats in Coronation Street, plays a fellow recruit, as does Tony Selby, who would be promoted to Corporal for his role as the tyrannical Marsh in Get Some In. Bill Maynard, who later played Selwyn Froggit plays the recruit’s long-suffering Sergeant while It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’s Windsor Davies (The Alphabet Murders) plays his Scottish counterpart. Even Stephen Yardley, ITV’s XYY Man, makes an appearance. Despite all these well-known names, the real Milligan still manages to steal the show as the on-screen Milligan’s slightly dotty dad, and it’s a real shame he doesn’t get more screen time.
The film was clearly shot on a limited budget, but director Norman Cohen manages to overcome such limitations quite creatively. Unable to show the armada of German bombers heading for London and the subsequent blitz, he shows us the recruits on a hill, silhouetted by the night sky as they watch the homes of their families being bombed. It’s a surprisingly moving moment, and it’s moments like this and, for example, Cohen’s effective use of hand-held camera, that show how big budgets will never be a substitute for a bit of intelligent creativity. Overall though, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall is probably slightly more miss than hit and will disappoint Milligan fans while offering only scattered laughs for those in search of comedy.
(Reviewed 14th October 2005)