Privates on Parade is a movie which at times is very funny and very black, worth watching and for some worth having, but which also can't seem to decide which sacred cows it wants to gore or which messages it wants to deliver.
It's 1948 and the British are fighting a Communist insurrection in the Malayan jungles. For the British Army in Malaya, WWII has hardly stopped. Acting Captain Terri Dennis (Denis Quilley) heads up a ragtag group of inept soldiers whose job it is to improve morale by staging song and dance shows for the troops. Since there are few women available, most of the troupe doubles in full drag, including -- with great enthusiasm and queenly putdowns -- Dennis. The troupe is under the command of Major Giles Flack (John Cleese), a Bible quoting anti-communist Army man who is more inept than the soldiers under him. However, it seems British arms are being stolen from a depot and being sold to the guerillas. The ringleader is an Army sergeant. One thing leads to another and soon the troupe is on a tour of remote outposts in the northern jungle. Unbeknownst to them, they are transporting one last big haul of rifles and ammo.
Privates on Parade started life as an acerbic British review that interspersed dark themes with music hall pastiches. And that's what we have here. The troupe led by Quilley puts on songs and dances that parody Fred and Ginger, Marlene Dietrich, marching production numbers and Vera Lynn-type icky ballads ("When the shadows creep, over fields of sheep, with a love that's deep, you and I will go to sleep, doing all those little things we used to do."). The dialogue is full of sexual innuendo, bawdy one-liners and gay stereotyping, especially in Denis Quilley's great performance. But in between the numbers are increasingly bitter messages targeting the British empire, the behavior of British officers, the repression of gay love, the hypocrisy of some men toward women, and so on. I suspect that, like Oh, What a Lovely War, it was a far more effective stage review than it turned out to be a movie.
Denis Quilley is the heart of the movie as the flamboyant queen with a great heart and second-rate talent. He's the lead in drag in several of the musical numbers and is first-rate. John Cleese does John Cleese, and he's a welcome part of the movie. I suspect he took the role because he liked the point of view, and the producers (including George Harrison) wanted him for some star power. Among the soldiers in the troupe is David Bamber playing a somewhat talented young soldier whose companion, a rough-speaking but funny sergeant, is killed in a fire-fight. I remember Bamber for his wonderful performance as the oily Mr. Collins who lives for Lady Catherine de Bourgh's condescension in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice.
The movie is something of a curiosity piece. I liked it, but it never seemed able to settle down and pick its targets.