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.