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Lost/Forgotten/Found #3: The Adventures of Gerard

The Adventures of Gerard (1970); Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski; Produced by Sir Nigel Films; Distributed by United Artists

This mock comedy epic–an early example of the transnational co-production that would later become the norm–combines several lost strands of late 1960s/early 1970s filmmaking. With a Polish director (Skolimowski, best known for British films like Deep End [1970] and Moonlighting [1982], with acting turns in such eye-opening fare as The Avengers [2012]), a Polish cinematographer (Witold Sobocinski, best known for his work with Roman Polanski in the 1980s), an Italian composer (Riz Ortolani), and British producers (Henry Lester specialized in Arthur Conan Doyle adaptations), the crew list reads like the set-up to a joke. Stars Peter McEnery (English), Claudia Cardinale (French-Tunisian), and Eli Wallach (American) complicate things, given that McEnery plays French Hussar Gerard, Cardinale plays the Spanish Teresa, and Wallach plays Napoleon himself. The film is based on a conflation of Conan Doyle stories featuring Gerard, a minorly comic French Brigadier of the early 19th century wars in Europe. The film attempts to combine several types of geopolitical intrigue–the siege of Morales, duels of honor between British and French forces, jumbled orders, espionage–with broad comic turns. The Adventures of Gerard is a shining example of a “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” mentality.

This Italian/Swiss/British co-production (distributed by U.S. stalwarts United Artists) is kind-of a reverse Spaghetti Western. Principally filmed in Italy, it seeks to restore the larger-than-life myths of these massive military personalities (with an emphasis on Napoleon and Wellington) while at the same time offer polite, family-friendly comedy. Wallach as Napoleon is a sour looking, sweaty, and generally goofy man, yet Gerard and his consort constantly give him the dignity and honor befitting a hero-genius. Curiously, the only real villain is the renegade Millefleurs (Jack Hawkins), an AWOL Englishman who lords over his army of bandits like a mad Roman emperor.

Although some of the sequences might be called transgressive (we see Cardinale in drag, witness some bawdy rolls-in-the-hay), this comedy of manners has a good deal of respect for its historical setting. Arthur’s son Adrian Conan Doyle and John Mollo advised on period and military matters, meaning that uniforms, protocol, and architectural veracity all appear to be in order. While the narrative does not hang together all that well, the comic turns remain consistent. Rather than buck appreciatist patriotism on all fronts, the humor instead stems from physical altercations. The best bit comes when a ruminating Gerard paces back and forth right in front of an active firing squad, miraculously ducking right before a barrage is loosed. Aside from moments like this, one can expect: lots of chase scenes (on foot and on horse); quite a few objects falling down cliff faces or off of parapets; sped-up frame rates to denote zaniness; Gerard’s direct address of the audience, which often doubles as narration; and Blimpish speeches that remain sincere while treading that fine line between wise and naive.

The film has (to my knowledge) never legally been available on NTSC/R1 home formats. It can now be streamed on Netflix, purchased through Amazon, or watched on YouTube.