U.K. / Switzerland, 1970
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 02 June 2014
Source MGM DVD
Jerzy Skolimowski’s films of the sixties – edgy, innovative, and challenging – were so clearly part of the collective new wave sweeping national cinemas of the day that the choice of The Adventures of Gerard as the first film of his international career seems doubly perplexing; it offers almost no connections with the work that went before. Doubtless, Skolimowski didn’t have too many options at the time. He’d just burnt his bridges with his native Poland, refusing to compromise an iota over the inevitably controversial Hands Up! and self-exiling himself to the West. So, we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that this first film should be as director-for-hire on a big-budget, internationally-cast, English-language comic-historic epic; still, Gerard stands out as a real anomaly in Skolimowski’s filmography.
Gerard is based on a series of a comic short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle that centre on the various military exploits during the Napoleonic Wars of a French Hussar officer, Etienne Gerard. (Conan Doyle himself valued his historical fiction over his detective stories – he killed off Sherlock Holmes so that he could devote himself to his favoured genre – although time hasn’t borne out his own estimation: who reads The White Company nowadays?) Gerard is the ultimate unreliable narrator, vain, boastful, self-obsessed, and blind not only to his own failings but also to the reality of anyone or anything outside of himself; the one twist to this is that he is brave and he does achieve military success. Conan Doyle uses all this for some standard British satire of funny little Frenchmen and also some humour over stereotypes of the English (such as tea-drinking and fox-hunting, both of which appear in the film).
The script is a cobbling-together of those Gerard stories that are set during the Peninsular War when Napoleon’s army was fighting both the British under Wellington and local Spanish partisans. Napoleon’s advance – Napoleon being played by a hamming-it-up Eli Wallach as effete and temperamental, clad as often as not in a Roman toga – has been brought to a halt by the inability to break through the British lines at the Castle of Morales. Napoleon then draws up a plan to send his stupidest officer as a decoy, expecting him to be captured by the British and thus confuse the enemy with the fake dispatches that he will be provided with. Our hero, Colonel Gerard of the Hussars of Conflans, is the chosen idiot, and in his exploits he encounters a tea-sipping, lapdog-bearing English officer, Col. Russell of the Coldstream Guards, with whom he fights a series of interrupted duels; Jack Hawkins as Marshal Millefleurs, a degenerate renegade British officer leading a band of brigands; and, most importantly, the Countess of Morales—Claudia Cardinale sporting the low-cut dresses and feisty attitude of Once Upon a Time in the West.
The first thing to be said of The Adventures of Gerard is that Skolimowski has obeyed the rules of this particularly game. It looks fine, and it can be enjoyed as much as any late-sixties comic adventure: sprightly music, hordes of extras moving across sun-baked landscapes (Italy standing in for Spain, but no matter), and plenty of comic business. Skolimowski gets the tone right, above all in a pitch-perfect performance from Peter McEnery (whatever happened to him?). His voiceover narration is a delight – “We Hussars were the pick of the cavalry, the officers were the pick of the Hussars, and I was the pick of the officers” – with a charming mixture of overweening self-confidence (if not self-conceit) and almost complete blindness to the realities around him. His performance is spot-on too, as he holds himself upright in his saddle, adjusts his shako, twirls his finely-groomed mustachios, and time and again stares at or directly addresses the camera. At the same time, the film’s mockery of his character – even at the end, when his love for the Emperor ridiculously if inevitably wins out over that for the Countess – is never so much that he loses our sympathy.
Skolimowski himself sets a similarly mocking tone with all the comic and absurdist touches. Often, the comedy seems drawn from a Roadrunner cartoon—there’s speeded-up dialogue and action, and impossibly unrealistic flourishes such as Gerard dropping from a great height to land on a horse and ride away. There are straightforward pratfalls (Gerard striding manfully into a hotel chamber, intent on seduction, and stepping into a bath full of water) and touches of the absurd (Napoleon’s entire military staff piled on top of one another and squeezed onto one seat of his coach). And there’s the very dark humour of the scenes with the sadistic Marshal Millefleurs, such as when he has his dining table borne about by one of his minions whose head pokes up out of the centre—all the easier for cracking a hard-boiled egg on.
Of course, as with any of these multi-national European productions, there are dull patches—the scenes, for example, between Marshal Massena and his mistress, both poorly-dubbed, are pretty excruciating in their desperate attempts at comedy. In the main, however, Gerard fulfils its modest comic and commercial ambitions. In a career varied in the extreme – put Barrier, Moonlighting, and Essential Killing together and it can be hard to link them as the work of the same man – it is Skolimowski’s least characteristic and most anonymous film. It’s not the misfire some have made out 1; fitfully entertaining, mildly amusing, and rather dated, The Adventures of Gerard is enjoyable enough on its own terms—if never really offering anything more.