Home Video Hovel: At War with the Army, by David Bax
Hal Walker’s At War with the Army was the first film to star Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as a comedic duo in the lead roles. It’s ostensibly an adaptation of James B. Allardice’s play but, in effect, the text is really just the canvas onto which Martin and Lewis splattered themselves, like a child drawing pictures in crayon on a novel.
There’s a plot but the film’s general disinterest in it makes it far harder to follow than it should be. What is known is that Martin’s 1st Sgt. Vic Puccinelli and Lewis’ Pfc. Alvin Korwin were a singing and dancing duo before the war (presumable World War II though this is never stated). Now they’re in training camp together and Puccinelli outranks Korwin. Korwin wants a three day pass to go so his newborn child and Puccinelli either can’t help him or doesn’t care enough. The bits of story can only be reached in the brief gaps between the windmill blades of song and dance numbers or extended physical comedy displays.
What little does stand out as funny is the stuff that doesn’t come from the two leads. Perhaps it’s the play is the source of the humor or the adaptation but, in any case, the actual words spoken by the cast are far funnier than Lewis contending with an out of control Coke machine for no reason or dressing in drag to sing a song with Martin.
Underneath the plastered on showstoppers (not in the good way) is a touch of satire. It may play like a lightweight Catch-22 but there are some teeth to the film’s depiction of military life as hopelessly, almost absurdly, bureaucratic. You have a fill out a form in order to punch a guy and the only person who knows what’s actually going on with the company is the captain’s wife, who happens to be friends with the general’s wife. The grudging and repetitive training is mostly used as rehearsal for the pageantry lower-ranking officers use to impress higher-ranking officers. Meanwhile, everyone seems to have taken a pledge to be moral with their fingers crossed behind their backs. There are virtuous standards to be upheld but everyone implicitly understands that a pass off the base means a chance to go get laid and hopefully not catch anything. One young woman does end up pregnant but the closest anyone comes to acknowledging it is a sideways mention of the word “expecting.” That last bit may have been kismet in which the bullshit code of Hollywood and the movie’s idea of the bullshit code of the Army lined up.
All of these sly barbs may not exactly equal belly laughs but they provoke a more pleasant reaction than Lewis’s pratfalls or Alvin’s own summation of the drudgeries of military life – he ponders if getting shipped overseas might be preferable because a “concentration camp’s gotta be better than this.” If that seems tone deaf, you’re right, but it’s oddly harmonious with the rest of At War with the Army.