The winning formula of John and Roy Boulting produced and directed this military comedy with a cast of names that one can only admire from start to finish.
The central character, Stanley Windrush, is played by Ian Carmichael. He’s socially awkward and a complete klutz who just happens to be called up in 1942 to serve his country. He’s got an influential Uncle in the army brass played by the shady Dennis Price. “War is a time for opportunity.” Price pulls a string to get Ian a shot at Officers school which of course backfires.
Ian doesn’t fare to well at the physical side of training and when sitting down with camp psychiatrist, John Le Mesurier is asked, “We’re you ever bullied at school.” Flunking out of Officer’s training, Ian, is placed under the command of Terry-Thomas. He’s soon to find that his mates in the company are dodgers and scroungers. Among them are Richard Attenborough, Ian Bannen, Kenneth Griffith(s) and Victor Maddern.
Attenborough quickly takes Ian under his wing to teach him in the ways of dodging any real military duties and avoid seeing any combat at all costs. That doesn’t sit well with Thomas and his aide, Thorley Walters. Thomas plays to his strength as a cad and really isn’t any better than his charges aside from he’s wearing the stripes. There’s an amusing scene where he’s just as hungover as Ian but has to play it firm in dealing out punishment to the youngster.
When Thomas sneaks into a local theater to catch the 1942 classic, In Which We Serve (a film that Attenborough debuted in) he’s less than enamored to find the company misfits sitting in the theater derelict of their duties. “No more scrounging. No more dodgers.” He quickly transfers the boys off to other outfits.
All of which brings us to our second half and a military operation being overseen by Price who needs a patsy and has Ian assigned to his operation. Price has gathered an elite group of commandos who can all speak and pass for German soldiers. Their goal is to travel ninety miles behind enemy lines to a castle overtaken by the German command. A castle full of plundered treasures and paintings.
Turns out Price is an art dealer who is less than respectable and not above selling a forgery when the opportunity presents itself. Not only is Ian going to serve as the perfect patsy but he’s taken on a partner in Attenborough.
What follows is an amusing comedy of errors where Ian is concerned when confronted by German officers. After all, he was trained to speak Japanese in the art of cloak and dagger. And how about that German General and his aide he’s holding a gun on. No idea who played the General but there’s no mistaking the tall lanky aide with the baritone voice. It’s none other than Sir Christopher Lee in an early unbilled role. I would imagine his being able to speak German fluently landed him the part. In just over two years he’d be firmly identified as a legendary star of horror films with the Frankenstein Monster and Count Dracula on his acting resume.
According to the trivia section on the film at the IMDB, Lee dubbed Dennis Price when the actor was required to speak German during the climatic top secret mission.
Progress is a comedy gem but in truth nowhere near the classic that the follow-up would prove to be. Many of the cast members including the central four, Carmichael, Thomas, Attenborough and Price would reunite for 1959’s tale of Union workers striking in I’m Alright Jack. A winning formula accented by the addition of Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford. The screenplay for Progress was nominated for a BAFTA award while the sequel would win the award as did Peter Sellers for Best Actor.
Ian Carmichael was a regular in the Boulting Brothers films during this period. He’d headline Progress and Jack while also appearing in Brothers-In-Law, Lucky Jim and Heaven’s Above for brothers Roy and John. Carmichael wasn’t the only actor that was regularly employed by the Boultons. Terry-Thomas was in a number of their films as were the lesser known “faces” many would recognize without perhaps knowing the accompanying name. People like Maddern and Le Mesurier or how about Miles Malleson who was a perfect fit to play Ian’s on screen father in Progress and it’s follow-up, Jack.
I do find it amusing as to how we discover films. In the days before the internet I’d be scouring film books at the local library for movies starring or featuring Christopher Lee in the cast so Progress was on my radar at a young age. Little did I know it was a minor role but there he was towards the end when I first saw the film ages ago barely recognizing the others on screen outside of the gap toothed Thomas due to my being a card carrying fan of It’s a Mad World from birth onwards. As a matter of fact I would see all these Carmichael films growing up on television and I’ve often wondered if it’s because we here in Canada are still “related” to England and the Monarchy. As a matter of fact many British movies and TV shows would play here in Canada back in the seventies that I know my parents tuned into on a regular basis. Shows like On the Buses, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave’ Em and Mind Your Language.
Having a fondness for Carmichael’s films as a kid I was somewhat disappointed that he didn’t carry on making them like Sellers who was legendary in our home due to the Clouseau series and Thomas who had us in stitches thanks to his many secondary roles throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s. Little did I know at the time that Carmichael had moved into television and remained busy up until his death at the age of 89 in 2010.
And how did I finally revisit Private’s Progress after a good thirty plus years? Well when a collector buys an all region blu ray machine it opens the door to having discs shipped in from beyond the big pond. Sets like a six pack of Terry-Thomas films with Progress included among some other hilarious comedies.