Soft Beds Hard Battles Review
Soft Beds Hard Battles is an almost indescribably bad film. There’s not a great deal more to say because it’s the sort of movie which is rotting on the screen while you’re watching it. It’s easy to see why it was made, it’s even easy to see how it could have been at least mediocre, if not good. But what emerged from the final collaboration between Peter Sellers and the Boulting Brothers is awful beyond even one’s worst expectations, a verdict which even Roy Boulting agreed with.
I’m not going to spend a great deal of time criticising the film because it would be a waste of my time and yours. Set between 1940 and 1945, it deals with a brothel in Paris, presided over by Madame Grenier (Kedrova) with the tacit approval of a friendly German General (Jurgens) and the patronage of a wide variety of soldiers from both sides. Madame Grenier and her girls become initially unwilling members of the Free French Army and work with Major Robinson (Sellers) of British Intelligence to gradually knock off the German officers who take advantage of the brothel’s facilities. The main hinderance to this plot is Gestapo Chief Schroeder (Sellers) who is convinced that the staff of the brothel are up to no good. In other words, it’s “Allo Allo” with a bit of soft porn thrown in.
I’m not going to begin ranting about how tasteless all of this is because that would suggest it’s a film worth getting upset about. But rendering the Nazi occupation of France comic is something that would take a lot more wit and insight than is present in this case. If the Nazis could possibly be comic, then they would have to be horribly, obscenely comic - the way that John Huston was in Chinatown - and it takes genuinely heroic bad taste to pull off that kind of humour. At his best, Mel Brooks has managed it - especially if you consider that his “The Inquisition” number in History Of The World Part One is as much about the Holocaust as it is about the Counter Reformation - and Lenny Bruce did it all the time. But making the Nazis foolish thugs is simply idiotic, especially when you forget to give them anything funny to do. There are moments when Sellers comes close to something really witty in his personification of Schroeder, the incredibly dim Gestapo agent who is a cross between Dr Strangelove and Inspector Clouseau, but is interrupted by some badly timed slapstick. But generally we get the usual superficial division of the German forces into ‘nice Germans’ and ‘nasty Nazis’, and if even someone as thoughtful as Roman Polanski ended up doing this in The Pianist, it’s hardly surprising that the Boulting Brothers resort to it.
Peter Sellers could have saved this material at one point in his career. Had it been made in 1963, when he was at his comic peak with Quilty in Lolita, the multiple roles in Dr Strangelove, and his wonderful work in The Wrong Arm of The Law, then he would have been endlessly inventive, creating laughs simple by being on screen. But, by 1973, Sellers was mad and beyond saving anything for anyone. You can see him trying to make the film work in occasional scenes and his Major Robinson has some good flip moments when he’s killing the German officers. Even Schroeder is a fairly inventive creation prevented by the script from being funny. But his cameo as Hitler is hopeless and the other characters are barely worth mentioning - the French general is lazy, the Japanese prince is idiotically racist and, worse, unfunny, and the brief scene as the French President at the end is totally forgettable. According to Roy Boulting, Sellers was infatuated with Liza Minnelli during shooting and would just walk off the set at will in order to spend time with her, and his lack of interest - which nearly led to the film being abandoned - is a drag on the picture. It ended his friendship with the Boultings and they never recovered to make another film. Considering their impact on his career with I’m All Right Jack, Sellers’ attitude is, as with many things in his life at this time, very sad. In better times, he would have worked on the script and forced it into life, but here he simply walks through like a shadow of the comic genius he once was.
The best thing that can be said about Soft Beds Hard Battles is that it looks very nice. The DP was Gilbert Taylor who worked with Sellers on Dr Strangelove and subsequently shot Star Wars, and he brings some atmosphere to the badly staged scenes and overdressed sets. The acting throughout is little more than competent. Lila Kedrova hams embarrassingly, Curt Jurgens looks bored and the prostitutes are simply there to flash their breasts and drape themselves on the furniture in a desperate attempt to look alluring. These actresses are a bizarre assortment of familiar faces and newcomers, ranging from soft-porn starlet Francoise Pascal to future “Magpie” presenter Jenny Hanley. One also gets to pretend to be Dennis Waterman by seeing what Rula Lenska looks like with no top on. Believe me, it’s diversions like these that make the film slightly less painful to watch. The worst performance in this or any other major British film is given by some poor sod called Rex Stallings. Supposedly playing a member of the American diplomatic service, he brings a new meaning to the word abysmal. The most welcome sight is the Brigadier from “Doctor Who”, the ever immaculate Nicholas Courtney, playing a French intelligence officer. Oh, I mustn’t forget the purportedly jolly narration which grates throughout and doesn’t even manage to supply an occasional grimace.
Soft Beds Hard Battles lasts 97 minutes but seems much longer. It’s a career low for Sellers - even worse than Ghost In The Noonday Sun - and the worst film that the Boultings ever made. Roy Boulting says, in Roger Lewis’s wonderfully moving and perceptive biography of Peter Sellers, that it’s the only film of his that he is ashamed of, which shows that he has a lot more taste than is evident on screen in this farrago.
Carlton have given this film the cursory treatment it deserves. Available on its own and as part of a box set with some much better movies - The Wrong Arm of The Law, Waltz Of The Toreadors, Never Let Go - it’s a disc which is entirely unremarkable.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.66:1. The image is clear and sometimes sharp but there is a lot of artifacting noticable in the night exteriors. Worse, the image has a grainy texture that is constantly visible and rather distracting. The colours seem washed out but that might be a fault of the film rather than the disc.
The soundtrack is English and Mono. Not bad as these things go but it’s got some hiss throughout and some crackling which becomes annoying after a while.
The only extra, and get this for an unwelcome gift, is an extra 10 minutes of the film which was cut for the general release after the London run. This is presented in fullscreen and look very scratchy. Rest assured that there is nothing here which is even vaguely superior to the rest of the film and feel free to forget that it exists.
There are English subtitles and a paltry 8 chapter stops.
I wouldn’t even wish Soft Beds Hard Battles on the Nazis. It’s a dreadful, totally unfunny comedy which deserves to be regarded as a piss stain on the otherwise honourable careers of the Boulting Brothers and Peter Sellers. The DVD offers nothing to make it worth a look for anyone except ghouls who like watching immense talent going down the toilet.