WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Shamed by accusations of cheating at cricket, Bertram ‘Bo’ West and his faithful butler Simpson head off to Africa to join the French Foreign legion. Although life is initially harsh, they soon get one over on their vainglorious leader, Sergeant Nocker, though the freedom this gives Bo gets them all into trouble. Worse, Bo’s beloved Jane follows him out to the desert to tell him that the whole thing is a ghastly mistake and gets herself lined up as wife no. 13 to a sabre-rattling Sheik.
I’m willing to bet Lombard Street to a China orange that if you took a survey of the general public nowadays four-fifths wouldn’t have a clue who Beau Geste or the French Foreign Legion were, and of the fifth that could tell you something more than half would mention Follow That Camel, the Carry On team’s take on P.C. Wren’s British hero (like Don’t Lose Your Head, the ‘Carry On’ bit was only added later after studio wrangling).
Bertram Oliphant ‘Bo’ West (Jim Dale) is our hero, who does the decent thing and heads off for the Legion when his ‘friend’ Humphrey, enamoured with Bo’s beau Jane (Angela Douglas), accuses Bo of tripping him up at the crease. With his faithful servant Simpson (Peter Butterworth) for company, West joins up and is introduced to the Fort’s hierarchy: effete Captain Lepice (Charles Hawtrey) and monocled German Commandant Maximilian Burger (Kenneth Williams). Bo, used to a nice breakfast and being dressed by others, struggles to adapt to the harshness of Legion life and incurs the wrath of waspish Colour Sergeant Nocker (Phil Silvers); until, that is, he discovers that Nocker is earning his stripes by telling tall tales of bravery when in fact he is cosily ensconced in the bar run by Zig-Zig (Joan Sims).
Armed with this information, Bo and Simpson’s lives suddenly become a lot easier; but during a night on the town both Nocker and West fall prey to the charms of exotic dancer Corktip (Anita Harris), secretly working in the employ of the Legion’s sworn enemy Sheik Abdul Abulbul (Bernard Bresslaw). Meanwhile, Jane has travelled to find Bo and is amazed to encounter Burger, her old fencing teacher from finishing school; he, however, is only a temporary diversion as her search for her wronged man leads her into the arms of the Sheikh. With the lady gone and West and Simpson held captive too, Nocker must raise the alarm and get a full-scale rescue underway. But how to convince Burger of the urgency of the situation when a disgruntled Zig-Zig has spilt the beans about the American’s medal-winning deceit?
Casting and writing are always the two crucial factors that make a Carry On film sink or swim, and in Follow That Camel casting is absolutely key. One instantly notices the lack of Sid James (through illness) and Barbara Windsor, naturally, but more important than this is the inclusion of Phil Silvers, presumably to help sell the film in the US. Perhaps because of the cosmopolitan nature of the Foreign Legion, Silvers’ brand of sarcasm fits surprisingly well into what you might imagine to be a quintessentially British picture, and he’s an imposing and entertaining presence even if clearly a little unfocused and a few years past the top of his game (he apparently read some of his lines from cue cards).
Williams is, as usual, excellent as the Commandant and he shares some good jokes with Hawtrey, even though the latter is – like Sims – underused. Bresslaw enjoys baring his teeth as the baddie and Dale is fine as the hero, Butterworth not too annoying as his retainer; and whilst Anita Harris makes for a rather scrawny femme fatale and Angela Douglas a bland damsel in distress, we can be thankful that this film predates the incorporation of her namesake Jack into the Carry On company.
The script, meanwhile, is a real curate’s egg. Talbot Rothwell always seems comfortable when writing about military life so it’s little surprise that the best bits of Follow That Camel deal with discipline and the fact that the troops’ ‘superiors’ are really nothing of the sort. There’s also the usual quota of nudging innuendo and general tomfoolery – Humphrey, ashamed of himself, both shoots and hangs himself (and lives to tell the tale!) – but on occasion the film’s cheerful sexism (the harem of busty lovelies is present and correct) strays too far.
No doubt the dimming of lights and casual refrain of ‘Travelling alone, miss?’ from a succession of men towards Jane was a hoot in the 60s, but now those scenes feel vaguely sinister; there are also some gags that must have raised eyebrows at the censor’s office, such as the name of the distant outpost Fort Zuassantneuf (a pun on the original Zinderneuf) and the shadows cast from the Sheik’s tent. Furthermore, although the film keeps its end up for a good hour, once the Legion troops into the desert it flags considerably, with only a sandcastle competition and a decent mirage joke to enjoy; the finale at Zuassantneuf shows a modicum of invention, but it’s little more than a dry run for the more polished climax to Khyber that followed the next year.
[Carry On] Follow That Camel isn’t the greatest of the gang’s parodies by a long stretch, but it looks the part (a major feat considering it was filmed on a Sussex beach) and there’s enough in it to make it feel relatively fresh, quite apart from Silvers’ unique turn. It contains nothing particularly classic in terms of comedy, but neither does it contain anything so bad that you’d escape to the Legion to forget.