DVD First Look: Jackboots on Whitehall

Jackboots on Whitehall

Written and directed by Edward McHenry and Rory McHenry
Starring Ewan McGregor, Rosamund Pike, Timothy Spall, Alan Cumming, and Dominic West
Available at Amazon.com: (Region 1) and Digital Download

Okay.  Look at the poster.  Look at the tag line.  Look at the Digital Spy review up there.  What’s your first impression?  Go on, it’s okay, say it.  England is ripping off Team America. That’s what it looks like.  And honestly, no one — including the movie’s marketing department — really cares if you think otherwise.  This could be, in a large part, why a movie with a cast consisting of half the English acting community actually managed to go completely under my radar until I got the screener DVD in the mail.  And that’s a pity.

Because the thing about Jackboots on Whitehall is it’s not the movie people seem desperate to sell it to you as.  Yes, the whole thing is done in miniature with puppets and a fair number of off-the-shelf car and airplane replicas.  But despite all appearances, this is not a flick whose keystone is “Look at the funny plastic people.”  Funnily enough, Jackboots actually relies upon the script and (voice) acting more than any sort of gimmick.

The plot, then.  The film takes place in an alternate wartime Britain, in which Nazi troops have drilled up through Trafalgar Square and occupied London.  In order to regroup, Prime Minister Churchill (Spall doing a bang-on impression) and his Punjabi forces make plans to evacuate the city.  They are helped on their way by a group of Kentish villagers headed up by Chris (McGregor), a farm boy rejected from military service on account of having freakishly large hands.  Together, they head north to Hadrian’s Wall, the border between England and the no-man’s-land known as Scot Land, where Chris and Churchill stage one last stand against the Germans.

Hitler enjoys Blackadder cosplay, funnily enough.

What nobody is going to bother to tell you is that Jackboots is, in fact, a proper satire.  A lot of the jokes are highly dependent on knowing British history and culture, not to mention Roman history at some points.  Because despite the fact that this obviously plays fast and loose with wartime events, their historical accuracy in some parts is astonishing — such as the fact that Churchill was a recreational bricklayer.  The stuff that’s inaccurate, like leather- and fishnet-clad Nazi chicks riding motorbikes through Buckingham Palace, they’re quite blatant about.  The things that are accurate are handled fairly matter-of-factly.  And for better or for worse, your ability to take that in will affect your ability to enjoy the movie.  In other words, you need to know stuff.

By way of tech, the actual puppetry was at once simple and complex.  The general motion of the puppets and vehicles was animatronic and/or remote controlled, with facial expressions and mouth movements done with CG in post-production.  While there were a lot of sight gags, very few of them involved the actual puppetry, the only real exception being the creepy emaciated Goebbels puppet who did very little but sit there with his mouth hanging open.  (I’ve seen other blog reviewers refer to this erroneously as stop-motion — not in the slightest.)  By way of complexity, the tiny costumes and tiny sets are ridiculously detailed, or at least as detailed as scale allows.  I did find myself stopping and staring at the buttons and stitching on some of the puppets’ costumes, and being rather amazed at just how in-depth a lot of the work was.

"I need some screencaps for my review. Any suggestions?" "The Nazi chicks."

The voices, though, were the standout feature of the movie, as can likely be guessed from the cast list, and I’ll never cover them all.  Richard Griffiths and Richard O’Brien as Goring and Himmler respectively (with Tom Wilkinson occasionally making odd wheezy noises for Goebbels) were fantastic in their limited scenes, but I wished for a lot more from them — as well as Alan Cumming as Hitler, constantly in fancy-dress.  McGregor and Spall carried the movie fantastically between them (especially Spall, who may well be my new favorite movie-Churchill).  Another I wished for more of was Richard E. Grant, who essentially played Withnail as an angry country vicar.

With all that brilliant voice talent lined up, you can probably guess what I expected to see in the extras, right?  Right — footage of a plethora of British screen legends bugging out behind the microphone.  It’s only right and proper, and any DVD nowadays reliant on voice acting tends to have at least a short rundown of that.  But … no.  There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage showing how certain sequences were done, interviews with every other member of production staff you could hope for, and a segment based entirely around the movie’s various explosions.  The longer features are cut together awkwardly, and the shorter sequences seem to be from a camera phone or YouTube video, but they’re informative and entertaining in their own right.  I was just massively disappointed that there was nothing to be seen of the faces behind the fantastic voice work.

When I was focusing down to review this, I let myself look at a handful of reviews, and opinion was very mixed.  I can understand that; this looked to need the “this will either be awesome or awful” tag right away, which is why I went up to a friend’s place and watched it with a group on his big-screen.  Whether this is one of those movies whose entertainment value increases depending on the number of people in the room, I’m not sure.  But coming into it expecting something either silly or flat-out bad and instead finding clever humor was a pleasant surprise.  Watching it requires sort of a mental mix of historical knowledge and the ability to laugh and throw your hands up and say “You know what?  Whatever.”  I knew how I felt about it as soon as I saw this onscreen at the beginning:

Your reaction to that should pretty well cover how you’re going to feel about Jackboots on Whitehall. If you giggled, go put in an order.

The R1 release of Jackboots on Whitehall drops July 26th.

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Gazhack
    on 2011-07-20 at 21:47

    Interesting review, which makes me want to see this film now. Must admit I was put off initially by the aforementioned marketing. But I liked “Churchill the Hollywood Years” and I did smile at Panzervision.

    • Written by Kara Dennison
      on 2011-07-20 at 22:17

      Pretty much everything used to (theoretically) interest people was poorly done, and that’s sad because this really is a fun movie.  After I watched what interviews there were, it became pretty clear to me that the goofy brothers who loved WWII movies and mucked around being silly with their own props between takes were NOT the ones in charge of cutting the trailers.

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