WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: When a fan from the East sends Ringo a precious ring, it accidentally makes him the next sacrificial lamb in the eyes of a crazy religion’s priests. A visit to a demented scientist only makes Ringo the target of one more madman, so the Beatles, aided by the lovely but mysterious Ahme, flee round the globe to protect their drummer – when, that is, they’re not persuading him to chop his finger off.
Dick Lester’s second film with The Beatles is more ambitious than his faux-documentary A Hard Day’s Night, and obviously funded by a bigger budget. Since the maxim ‘bigger is better’ is nowhere more false than in the movie industry, the money doesn’t guarantee a better film: but it does make one crucial difference, which I shall come back to later.
But first, the story. The Beatles – John, Paul, George and Ringo – live next to one another in the same street. In fact, whilst they have their own front doors, half the street has been knocked through to create a huge, futuristic Beatlepad. Although their lifestyle appears idyllic, one fan’s admiration of Ringo lands the drummer in trouble when he is sent a huge, red ring designed to be used as part of a sacrificial ritual.
Without the ring, the cult’s swami Clang (Leo McKern) cannot dispatch the red-painted female sacrifice to the gods, so he travels with his right-hand man Bhuta (John Bluthal) and high priestess Ahme (Eleanor Bron) to retrieve it; but despite using a variety of methods to relieve Ringo of his jewellery, the ring won’t come off, and a visit to an unhinged scientist called Foot (Victor Spinetti, clumsily assisted by Roy Kinnear’s Algernon) merely makes Foot obsessed with getting the ring for himself as it seems to be indestructible. With the ring and Ringo firmly united, Clang changes tack and aims to give the Beatle a coat of paint so he becomes the sacrifice, but with the help of the other lads and Ahme, who is herself a fan of the Fab Four, The Beatles escape from the clutches of both Clang and Foot as they hurtle around Britain and the world, singing songs as they go.
It would be misleading to explain the plot any further, as this would suggest that Help! spends any time developing a coherent story. What the film actually does is present an uneasy form of situation comedy, where the characters are placed in disparate locations and are tasked to find comedy in the situation. Unfortunately, as The Beatles, Clang and his men, and Foot and Algernon hurtle around an Indian restaurant, a recording studio, a ski resort, an army training camp, a mock-up of Buckingham Palace, and finally the Bahamas, comedy is only glimpsed rarely in either the locations or the frantic hunt for the treasure on Ringo’s finger.
A Hard Day’s Night pleased because it captured the band joking around in a semi-natural state; the fractured, surreal goings-on here, on the other hand, merely serve to confuse and ultimately bore. Just one example: the boys escape from Clang by diving underwater, re-surfacing in a swimming pool. In the very next shot they are on bikes, changing their minds about riding away from Clang (not that we knew they were) and choosing to confront him. This could be put down to editing for time, except that the rest of the film is exactly the same, littered with captions that attempt to bring some sort of sense to the jumbled action.
And while McKern, Bluthal, Bron, Spinetti and Kinnear all bravely throw themselves into their parts, their cavorting around (often resulting in nothing funnier than a change of costume) only serves – as John Lennon noted – to reduce The Beatles to extras in their own film.
The songs in Help! start completely at random and without context, but although I prefer The Beatles’ later work – from Rubber Soul onwards – there are still musical highlights here, my favourites being You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and Ticket to Ride in addition to the title number. However mediocre the rest of the film is, the songs are of sufficient quality and appear frequently enough to keep the viewer interested. As for The Beatles’ acting abilities, it’s clear that Paul fancies himself a bit useful, and Ringo has a convincing ‘poor lad’ quality to his expressions; but George never looks particularly interested, even when hanging onto the roof of a car; and John seems perpetually desperate to burst out with something spontaneous, the wretched story preventing him at all times.
Still, for fans any amount of The Beatles is a godsend, and then there’s the crucial difference: The Beatles are IN COLOUR! The idea barely raises an eyebrow now, but the thought of getting to see the group, in colour, at the local cinema must have been heaven to devotees mainly reliant on still photographs and low resolution black-and-white television pictures. To this end, Lester and his crew have crafted a decent-enough looking film, and although it presents a 60s Britain that hasn’t yet got into its swing, the sequences in the Alps and the Bahamas offer some lovely, bright escapism (most of the best sight gags also take place in the Bahamas, such as the air traffic controller using his paddle to resume a game of table tennis).
As an adventure in the mould of James Bond, Help! fails dismally. Although it does build up to a climax of sorts with Ringo being taken prisoner, the concluding beach brawl is as good an indication as any of the lack of thought that has gone into the plot. Without The Beatles, there is no film worth speaking of; with them, in bright colours, singing half an album’s worth of songs, there is something to watch. Only don’t expect to be much entertained by what happens in between.