(Jackboots on Whitehall, Edward & Rory McHenry, UK, 2010, 91 mins)
Imagine what would have happened if, on those balmy days at the end of June 1940, the British Army, instead of being evacuated, had fallen to the might of the Third Reich on the shores of Dunkirk? Now, picture that alternate reality as populated with rejects from the Action Man production line, a rampaging band of bloodthirsty, subtitled Scots, and a cross-dressing Führer, and you just about have the premise for Rory and Edward McHenry’s feature debut, Jackboots on Whitehall.
After the Nazis seize the chance to invade London, beleaguered PM Winston Churchill’s (Timothy Spall) only hope of rescue is country lad Chris (Ewan McGregor), barred from national service due to his unnaturally large hands, and his fellow villagers. As the Reich closes in, the survivors are forced to flee north, to the barren, bone-littered wastes of ‘Scot Land.’
Blessed with a cast that would shame most blockbusters and a premise that seems to guarantee satirical hilarity, it comes as some surprise that Jackboots is so drastically uneven. After a breathless opening third featuring a pre-credits dogfight, a Zeppelin attack over the English coast, and the Nazi invasion of London, Jackboots’ pace, perhaps inevitably, flags. Hampered by a frustratingly dull, tacked-on love story between would-be soldier Chris and English rose Daisy (Rosamund Pike), as well as some rather blunt excuses for satire – the sight of Hitler (Alan Cumming) in an Elizabethan gown sticks in the mind for all the wrong reasons – Jackboots limps to its explosive conclusion like an Action Man with one leg.
That’s not to say there aren’t some laughs to be had. Channelling everything from the classic Commando comics to war films such as Where Eagles Dare, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Zulu, Jackboots gleefully plays on every wartime cliche available. The gung-ho, seemingly indestructible Billy Fiske (Dominic West), an American who repeatedly confuses the Nazis with ‘Commies,’ as well as the scene-stealing Richard E Grant as a wild-eyed, creatively-cursing vicar, are frequently comical. Similarly, Jackboots’ setpieces are never less than spectacular. From a prolonged shootout in Downing Street to a Hadrian’s Wall-set last stand featuring catsuit-clad Nazi vixens and the aforementioned rampaging Scots, Jackboots is never stronger than when it ceases flapping its plastic lips and simply blows things up.
Likewise, while their satire may be scattershot, on a technical level the McHenry’s debut is near flawless. From the highly detailed recreations of London to the amazingly intricate puppets themselves, Jackboots easily stands up to comparisons with its older, crasser American cousin, Team America. Likewise, Guy Michelmore’s superb score, with its rousing strings and thumping drums, evokes the soundscape of the classic British war movie perfectly.
Although the piece is not without redeeming features, in the end, the McHenry’s script is just too weak to support their grand premise. With its satire approached with all the subtlety of a Panzer division, Jackboots, sadly, turns out to be more Barbie doll than Action Man – history-laden, beautiful, and utterly empty-headed.