La Grande Vadrouille Review
Prior to the arrival of Titanic in 1997, La Grande Vadrouille was France’s all-time box-office champion for three decades. In terms of French-language movies, it maintained the number one spot for even longer, finally being displaced by Dany Boon’s Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis in 2008. Yet like Boon’s populist comedy, La Grande Vadrouille most likely won’t ring too many bells with English audiences. It had been released, in both the UK and the US, in 1966 under the title of Don’t Look Now… We’re Being Shot At. But, needless to say, it didn’t hit anywhere near as well as it did in its native country despite being a British co-production. As such this DVD release, courtesy of Optimum, is especially welcome; finally many of us have the chance to catch up with Gérard Oury’s 1966 war comedy.
Pleasingly the reasons behind La Grande Vadrouille’s homeland success are easily discerned within the first half hour or so. The presence of Terry-Thomas had initially led me to believe that this would be a film akin to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Monte Carlo or Bust and their ilk. Certainly, its tale of a trio of British paratroopers landing in occupied France in 1941 and having the locals aid their escape courtesy of various farcical misadventures seems to fit the bill. Yet whilst La Grande Vadrouille is knockabout, reliant on slapstick and vaguely episodic in its structure, it is also a great deal more endearing than those other Terry-Thomas ventures. Behind the scenes Oury had assembled an exceptional collection of co-conspirators: director of photography Claude Renoir, composer Georges Auric, production designer Jean André. The results are excellent production values and a gloss that is easily the equal of a classic Hollywood production from the studio era. More importantly, however, such capable hands prevent Oury from getting too caught up in such concerns. Rather he is able to focus more fully on the acting talent; after all, it is they who really make the film what it is.
Once again it is tempting to start with Terry-Thomas here given how he is likely to the best known to UK viewers. Yet his role is more that of a supporting player (he plays one of the paratroopers) and he is easily overshadowed by the two French stars, André Bourvil (credited onscreen simply as Bourvil) and Louis de Funès. In part this is owing to Oury toning down Terry-Thomas’ eccentricities a little, and partly because the French pair are both on top of their game. Bourvil had been acting since the forties, most notably in the Sacha Guitry 1954 feature Si Versailles m’était conté... (interestingly, he would later appear in Monte Carlo or Bust), as had de Funès, though his career didn’t really take off until the mid-fifties when he appeared in a small but standout role in Claude Autant-Lara’s La Traversée de Paris, coincidentally another World War II comedy starring Bourvil. By 1966, however, equal top-billing was the order of the day and, indeed, they play off each other well. Bourvil is a painter who gets embroiled in the paratroopers’ need to escape, de Funès the composer who does likewise, and the class tensions between the two expectedly play a part in their love-hate relationship. Indeed, it is this contrast that works so well, not just in terms of the characters but the styles of performance also. Neither is quite the straight man, with Bourvil playing on his laidback, earthier qualities and de Funès sticking to a more uptight and occasionally aggressive routine,
Both actors are also equally adept at the more physical aspects of the humour which plays such a big role in La Grande Vadrouille. It is perhaps not so much that the material is fresh, as it were - this kind of slapstick goes back, of course, to the silent era - simply that Bourvil and de Funès are exceptionally gifted when it comes to timing and delivery. That said, Oury does have some wonderful visual ideas up his sleeve, most notably the scene in which unwary Frenchmen are lured down an open manhole so that their clothing may be put to better purposes. The fact that this sequence also involves that old standby, the drag routine, is neither here nor there; the sheer inventiveness easily transcends accusations of La Grande Vadrouille relying on tired ideas.
And yet, the presence of a bit of cross-dressing humour, not to mention elements of the bedroom farce, do sum up the crowd-pleasing nature on display. La Grande Vadrouille is a film which is very much a lightweight offering, although that is no bad thing. The war is never treated as in any way threatening, for example, despite the intermittent bursts of gunfire or the odd explosion - it is too much of a confection to allow itself to address such concerns. As a result the film could perhaps be seen as the flipside to another 1966 French co-production about World War II, René Clément’s Is Paris Burning?. Both are big budget efforts with multi-national casts and a lot of talent behind the camera. But I would take La Grande Vadrouille’s entertainment value over Clément’s sincerity at any given moment. And I am also extremely grateful that this Optimum disc now gives me that opportunity.
A no-frills disc from Optimum, with only a theatrical trailer accompanying the main feature. However, the presentation is for the most part impressive with only a couple of flaws to let things down slightly. The film comes in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, whilst the subtitles (the main language being French with a smattering of English and German) are optional. The picture quality is mostly sound. Taken from a print in fine condition, there are no signs of damage or deterioration. Indeed, the colour palette - La Grande Vadrouille was shot in Eastmancolor - looks to be exactly as intended, the reds and blacks being especially rich. The only real flaw is evidence of edge enhancement, though this is admittedly a minor one and doesn’t prove detrimental to our enjoyment. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original mono rendered as DD2.0. It copes ably with the dialogue and Auric’s score, but does show signs of distortion during a handful of the more energetic moments. Once again, however, this proves to be only a minor flaw given the number of instances and the fact that, for the vast majority of the film, the soundtrack is in superb condition.