Two Men Went to War

“If there were more lunatics like these, we could finish the war by Christmas,” supposedly comments Winston Churchill (played by David Ryall) on the antics of Sergeant Peter King (played by Kenneth Cranham) and Private Leslie Cuthbertson (played by Leo Bill), who are featured in the amusing biopic Two Men Went to War, directed by John Henderson. When the film begins, during 1942, dyspeptic Sergeant King is instructing a class of World War II trainees in the Royal Army Dental Corps, including naïve recruit Cuthbertson, who is paying more attention to soldiers drilling outside in Aldershot than to King’s wry quips about the need for dentists on the battlefront. After class, Cuthbertson wanders around the base armory; when King discovers him, holding a grenade, Cuthbertson admits that he would rather be fighting on the front ASAP. Not pleased with his assignment either, King then gives Cuthbertson a reprimand and grabs the grenade out of his hand. Cuthbertson, however, is still holding the pin; as they try to put the grenade back together again, a nearby accidental explosion gives both a taste of battle. That night, King decides to go AWOL and orders Cuthbertson to dress in full battle gear. The two board a train for Plymouth soon after King posts a letter to Churchill boasting of their mission. On arrival, a young woman, Emma Fraser (played by Rosanna Lavelle), amorously attracted to Cuthbertson, and her mother offer a room to the twosome in their home while they await nightfall to hijack a fishing boat so that they can go to France to grenade two German pocket battleships that are raising havoc in the English Channel for the British Navy. Luck appears to be on their side. They land, evade capture, drop the two grenades as best they can, and hurry back to England. Out of fuel for the boat, they attract attention by firing on a mine and presumably are picked up by a naval patrol boat. Soon, they are in a court martial, where the military panel finds their story unbelievable despite Emma’s testimony. Then Major Merton (played by Derek Jacobi), foppish personal aide to Churchill, enters the room; he interrupts proceedings to interrogate the two, thanks them for providing a needed diversion for the success of a regular unit that was assigned to blow up two German ships behind enemy lines, and extends an invitation from Churchill for the two to stop by Whitehall for a cup of tea. Titles at the end indicate that the two never met again after they left the court martial despite applause from the military unit standing outside. King, titles tell us, was demoted to corporal, reassigned to another unit, served in the Korean War, and retired in New Zealand. Titles also indicate that Cuthbertson served twenty-eight days in the brig despite his exoneration, and then was reassigned to a combat unit; after the war, he is said to have served as Mayor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Thanks to an adaptation of Raymond Foxall’s The Amateur Commandos (1980), they have achieved immortality while perhaps persuading a few Brits to enjoy an assignment in Iraq. MH

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