La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

Which literally translates as ‘The Great Ramble’, but the English title of this hilarious French film is Don’t Look Now—We’re Being Shot At.

And, that English title is explained within the first couple of minutes of the film itself. This is in the middle of World War II, somewhere over Germany.  An RAF plane, part of an operation to bomb this area, is flying along, commanded by Sir Reginald (Terry-Thomas), along with his co-pilots Pete Cunningham (Claudio Brook) and Alan MacIntosh (Mike Marshall). The operation is code-named Tea for Two, after the Irving Caesar/Vincent Youmans song.

The plane encounters some heavy anti-aircraft fire and sustains some damages. The worst damage of all seems to be to their map, which has a great big hole burnt through the middle of it, as a result of which Sir Reginald & Co. lose their way…

… and end up over Paris. It’s early morning, they’re bleary-eyed, and they look down to see the Eiffel Tower.

Just as the Germans who’re swarming all over Paris notice this lone RAF plane overhead. The ack-ack guns are quickly pulled out, the German gunners let loose, and Sir Reginald’s plane is knocked out of the sky.

Fortunately for our heroes, they sustain not a scratch as they put on their parachutes and bail out. As they’re parting ways, Sir Reginald tells Cunningham and MacIntosh to meet him at the Turkish Baths in Paris. And remember the code name: the tune of Tea for Two.

And where do they land?

Sir Reginald hovers over the zoo, veering dangerously close to landing inside the tiger’s enclosure, but—whew!—ends up coming down in a water body. Thankfully, a zoo keeper sees him and helps him out, gathering up Sir Reginald’s parachute and hurrying both pilot and parachute off into hiding before they’re spotted by any Germans. Later, this man manages to loan Sir Reginald some clothes; in return, he asks to keep the parachute: he’ll be able to make lots of new shirts with it.

Then, there’s Peter Cunningham, who lands atop a building that had been taken over by the Gestapo. Some Gestapo bigwig is about to arrive, and a very spiffy guard of honour has turned out for the occasion. Except for one French house painter up on a scaffolding, who’s busy doing his work, everybody’s attention is focused on the arrival of the Gestapo hotshot.

As luck would have it, Peter’s parachute snags on the edge of the roof, and he dangles dangerously, swaying against the painter’s scaffold. The painter, Augustin (Bourvil) tries to help, the ropes holding the scaffolding up get entangled with Peter’s parachute, and, just as the Gestapo bigwig draws up in his limousine underneath…

… a bucket of paint slides off the tilting scaffolding.

The Germans go berserk. And simultaneously, Augustin and Peter manage to haul themselves up on to the roof, and run.

They get inside the building, and can already hear German soldiers thundering up the stairs. Fortunately, though, there is a sympathetic soul here: Juliet (Marie Dubois) works as a puppeteer and is right now at home. With her help, Augustin is able to hide Peter long enough to convince the Germans that the fugitive airman they were chasing isn’t in this building after all.

Then, there’s the third of the Brits, MacIntosh. MacIntosh comes down on the roof of the Opera House and manages to make his way into the dressing room of the tempestuous conductor, the maestro Stanislas LeFort (the absolutely brilliant Louis de Funès). The maestro has been having a hard time: the opera cast comes to attend rehearsals and spends its time distracting him; some of his musicians would much rather chat than focus on their performance; and he’s generally had it up to here.

But when he discovers this RAF man hiding in his wardrobe, M. LeFort cannot help but help. So, when the Germans burst in, Schmeissers at the ready and demanding to be allowed to search the dressing room, the maestro tells them to get on with it while he and his harpist practice. The Germans are too focused on their own job (and perhaps not really musical) to notice that the harpist is just twanging away madly at the harp. And seems to sit in an odd, hunched-up way, as if he’s hiding behind the harp…

The Germans leave the way they had come, and MacIntosh, all gratitude, finds that LeFort has no intention of leaving this fugitive to his own devices. Non, non. The maestro will help. MacIntosh tells him about having to meet at the Turkish Baths, and how Sir Reginald has a whacking great moustache, and about Tea for Two.

Which, Augustin being eager to help and Cunningham remembering his orders well, means that later that day, two Frenchmen arrive at the Turkish baths. Both are whistling Tea for Two, and both look very expectantly towards the man with the most impressive moustache around.

While Sir Reginald, in one of the private cubicles, is busy shaving off his moustache, because the zoo-keeper had told him it made him stand out.

And this, mind you, is only at the half-hour mark of La Grande Vadrouille (which is just over two hours long). Sir Reginald, Cunningham, and MacIntosh, helped along by Stanislas LeFort, Augustin, Juliet, and a bunch of other French patriots (who’re more than happy to cock a snook at the Germans), must make their way towards Meursault, beyond which the Free Zone is just a hop, skip and a jump. On the way, there are adventures aplenty, as they repeatedly try to give the Germans the slip; as they end up separated, and then come together in the oddest of ways. As Stanislas and Augustin are forced to share not just a room but a bed at a hotel and find themselves actually sharing their beds with German officers…

Why I loved this:

This one, in my opinion, is the sort of film that’s tailor-made for people who’re struggling to stay sane through the pandemic. It’s pure escapist fun, an utter farce, even though it’s set in a time of war, of the Nazi occupation of France. As an example of how frothy this is: while there are guns aplenty, and much shooting etc happening, nobody ever dies. Even when you’re certain somebody must have died in that particular incident, the film takes just a moment to show you that no, all is well.

Just how someone (director/scenario writer Gérard Oury, and adaptation writers Marcel Julien and Danièle Thompson) could make such a hilarious romp out of something that could have been just an edge-of-the-seat adventure, says a lot for the importance of story and script in good cinema.

And, the acting. Louis de Funès I had discovered while watching Le Grand Restaurant, and I liked him so much, I was eager to watch other films of his. Le Grande Vadrouille, I think, is even better (and de Funès is better, too) than Le Grand Restaurant. Bourvil is a joy, and the rest of them, from Terry-Thomas to Benno Sterzenbach as the German Major Achbach, are uniformly good. I found it laudable, too, that the film-makers took the trouble to cast native speakers of languages in all the speaking roles. German actors play the Germans, for instance, and converse in German, though they can speak a bit of French now and then to communicate.

If you want some good light-hearted entertainment, this is a film I heartily recommend. 

19 thoughts on “La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

  1. This one, in my opinion, is the sort of film that’s tailor-made for people who’re struggling to stay sane through the pandemic.

    Perfect! I giggled my way through your review, and am now on my way to search for it. Thanks, Madhu!

  2. “This one, in my opinion, is the sort of film that’s tailor-made for people who’re struggling to stay sane through the pandemic.”
    What is this awesomeness? I must watch it, Now! Right after I rewatch Chupke Chupke and Satte pa Satte. My list for getting through everything horrible going on in the world.

    • Yes. Things are so horrible right now. I mean, they have been for a long time now, but the horridness just went up a few notches. :-( I can’t bear to read or watch anything even vaguely realistic these days; escapism is the name of the game!

        • The problem us, watching a drama takes time – which I’m too short of these days. :-( I usually have only half an hour a day in which to watch something, and that’s not even half an episode’s worth. Plus, reviewing dramas is, I think, a totally different ball game. I would never be able to figure out how much detail I should go in to!

          But I would love to know which dramas you’ve been watching lately. Recommendations are always welcome. :-)

          • Hmmm how about some Korean movies then? I am in love with the works of Bong Joon-ho and how he dissects the deep rooted capitalist practices in South Korea, how he uses music which completely belies what is happening on the screen which is so real, yet farcical, and the different sides he explores.

            Watch Okja, Mother, Snow Piercer and Barking Dogs Don’t Bite.

            Dramas can be long but I just wrapped up Hospital Playlist and this was a slow release one- one episode a week. This helped to pace myself since some episodes went on for as long as 2 hours. But then I had one whole week to go through it before the next one. But I can completely understand how touch reviewing something like this might get!

            Watch Healer for the sheer intelligence, depth and complexity of the plot!

            One Spring Night and Tune in for Love if you are okay with really slow dramas.

            Squad 38 if you enjoy long cons especially those which are Robin Hood-esque in nature.

            Nobody Knows, again a really slow drama, but one which is brilliantly made, and also if you dig deeper into it, represents the deeply hierarchical and collective nature of the Korean Society- elders looking out for the young ones. This was an amazing watch for me because I could actually contrast it with the individualistic takes that most US dramas follow- every person for themself and resultant loneliness it brings with it.

            • I remember having watched a lot of Korean movies once upon a time. And, unlike most other people who seem to rave about them, I didn’t really love them much. Bong Joon-Ho I found mostly too violent and graphic for my liking, and most of the romances were too sappy or silly or just too tragic. Oddly enough, my favourite Korean movie remains Going by the Book, a comedy about a hidebound cop who will do everything as it’s written in the law.

              Thank you so much for the drama recommendations! I’ve seen Healer (and loved it), and Hospital Playlist has been on my watchlist for a while; I must get around to it soon. The others sound great as well. Thank you. :-)

  3. Madhu,
    Your review is hilarious. The movie looks like it is a must watch. I would be on the lookout for watching it online, free or some nominal rental. I have given up buying DVDs now.
    AK

  4. I love farces. So it is right up my alley.
    Also from your review It reminded me of the BBC sitcom “Allo Allo “which was also set against the backdrop of World War II That had all the stereo types … Germany army, gestapo, French resistance, RAF pilots, British undercover agent,stolen painting … you name it . That was good fun . When you endorse something so enthusiastically I know I am in for a sure winner.
    . I could get a link for the same in Youtube. Unfortunately it had no subtitles. My French is now rudimentary due to non use and I don’t want to get depressed by trying to comprehend French and failing. So am seeking a subtitled print!

  5. I left a message earlier but do not know where it went. There was another Russian movie about a heist which you had recommended. need to look into it now!
    You can be relied upon to take the step into unknown territory!

    • WordPress must have swallowed up your comment, because it didn’t even come to me for moderation. :-(

      The Russian heist movie would be The Diamond Arm. BTW, if you like heist movies and you like humour too, my favourite Italian movie is a comedy which centres round a heist. It’s a delightful film, called I Soliti Ignoti (aka Big Deal on Madonna Street), and just the memory of the film is enough to make me smile.

      Here’s my review of the film:

      https://madhulikaliddle.com/2010/07/07/i-soliti-ignoti-1958/

      It should be available online as Big Deal on Madonna Street, even if you can’t find I Soliti Ignoti itself.

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