|Index||5 reviews in total|
Amiably daft action comedy that starts out semi-seriously only to get
sillier by the minute, doing all it can along the way to gleefully rip
off British TV series The Avengers.
What we're talking about here isn't finely wrought, minutely detailed art, but colourful entertainment broader than a castle rampart. The story and setting are original and interesting, and one could just barely imagine a serious film based on this premise, but playing the clown was probably a wiser choice, as it offsets the inherent eccentricity of the plot.
The action is plentiful and well executed, and it's lent freshness by the eclectic mix of armoured knights, cars, Cockney gangsters in suits and John Steed-wannabe Colonel Cook (Mills) fighting it out with his trusty umbrella. To me, the action and comedy highlight comes when gangster Sidney Gore (Glover) takes on an entire contingent of mounted knights using only his fists and a very bad temper it's actually quite glorious.
Like the action, performances are big, loud and ridiculous, few of the actors having seemingly heard the phrase "less is more". The exceptions are Birney as our wooden hero (who still makes a go at hamming it up on occasion) and Cushing, who only has two scenes, both of which are heartfelt and serious, making him look simultaneously impressive and completely out of place. The award for Most Over the Top Performance goes to Glover, with Leighton as his mother a close runner up. I'm not a fan of actors going that big, but Glover and Leighton almost gets away with it on account of their characters being innately funny. Pleasence doesn't reign it in either as the autocratic master of the knightly order, but when he goes over the top all that happens is that he becomes terrifying, so I'm OK with that.
Light, kitschy entertainment is what's on the menu, then, and Trial by Combat (also known in various markets as A Choice of Weapons and A Dirty Knight's Work) does what it sets out to do in delightful fashion, never losing its footing, but then again never trying for anything resembling greatness either. If one isn't feeling particularly brainy, a movie showing a charging car getting pierced by lance wielding knights can be ever so much fun, so I do wish more people got to see it. But this is a film that's hard to come by, which is a shame, since it's certainly better value for money than anything Roland Emmerich has ever made, and it isn't hard getting hold of his "films", is it? But much like the knightly code in the movie itself, Trial by Combat belongs to a different era, so I won't hold my breath for a proper home media release.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Quite an oddity this one.
The premise is simple. In 1970s England, a cult of enthusiasts of medieval knights, led by Sir Giles Marley (Donald Pleasance), have become vigilantes, dishing out their own unique brand of justice to criminals who have managed to evade punishment by the police or law courts. After capturing their targets, they put them through a 'trial by combat', that is making them fight for their lives in the style of the old knights, primarily via a joust.
Now whilst that's not exactly the most solid premise, but it's certainly no worse than that which many other horror films are founded upon. Indeed, things start off quite promisingly. The images of heraldry and the colourful English countryside (back in the days when English summers used to be dry and sunny) give an interesting look to the film, then when you throw in actors like Donald Pleasance being suitably sinister and Peter Cushing as a concerned neighbour who discovers and opposes the dastardly goings-on, you think this could unfold as a dark, macabre game of cat-and-mouse between the pair.
Unfortunately that's not the case. Cushing's character is immediately bumped off, so instead of him we have as the leading good guys retired police chief Colonel Cook (John Mills) and David Birney as Sir John Gifford, the estranged son of Cushing's character returned from the USA to claim his inheritance.
Unfortunately Mills' character is made eccentric almost to the point of being ridiculous, for example he leaves the windows open so that pigeons can fly around his office whilst he's working. Well, actually it's not his office anymore, it's that of his replacement Oliver Griggs (John Savident), so perhaps it's all really Cook's way of winding him up since the pair are rivals. Whatever, it seems to be thrown into the film for comedy effect, and that's one of the main problems, there's too much comedy. Light relief ceases to become 'relief' when it dominates the rest of the proceedings.
Many British TV and film productions of this period felt a need to incorporate an American leading man in order to capture the overseas market. Whilst there's nothing wrong with that idea, in practise many of them failed because they had a bland, stereotypical American character played by a bland stereotypical American actor. The 1970s British TV series 'Thriller' suffers very badly in this respect and 'Trial By Combat' is another case in point. In a film littered with great British actors who are able to inject a real presence and character into even the smallest of parts (even down to the likes of Bernard Hill, George Sweeney and Kevin Lloyd who have early cameos here), Birney as a lead is so one-dimensional and uninteresting he just gets swallowed up. Furthermore, very early on in the film, his character comfortably defeats pretty much all of Marley's toughest warriors in a friendly contest, which completely undermines the suspense when they lock horns on a more serious level in the closing stages of the film.
Barbara Hershey plays the female lead and is given very little to do. Well, actually she does manage to knock down John Savident by pushing a cannon ball along the floor at him with her foot from a distance of 15 feet, but that's just symptomatic of the kind of film this is. I won't say how Pleasance's character meets his end, but that's pretty silly too.
The most frustrating thing about this film is that, with the ideas and resources at its disposal, it should have been so much better. Birney aside, it really does have a good cast, and there are some good ideas and images too, which at least keeps it interesting, but it completely fails as a work of horror or suspense due to a pervading air of silliness, and so it consequently leaves you wondering exactly what audience the director was trying to appeal to.
I was faintly surprised that I'd never heard of this film: Made in
Britain with John Mills, Donald Pleasance, Peter Cushing, Brian Glover,
Bernard Hill, Margaret Leighton, John Savident and that tarty bird from
The Rag Trade - it sounds like the kind of film that should be lodged
somewhere in the consciousness of a British movie fanatic. Then I
watched it and I immediately realised why it has been consigned to the
'forgotten' files of filmdom.
It's silly and it's stupid.
The plot revolves around a group of toffs who dress up as ye knights of olde to off miscreants they feel the justice system has overlooked - usually at the end of a jousting... stick. They then dump the bodies on the same stretch of road within site of Tower Bridge, wrapped in a bright red banner, from a bright yellow vintage Rolls Royce. Donald Pleasance plays the lead baddie and he's probably the best thing about the whole sorry mess. John Mills is the lead good guy (C-lister Burney's there for the American market) and he seems to be the only one who's treating it with the appropriate degree of levity. Watching actors like Mills, Pleasance and Cushing in a film like this really gives you an insight into what a moribund condition the British film industry was in back in the mid-70s: they'd probably have appeared in a Carry On or Confessions film if they'd been asked.
Avoid at all costs unless you really want to see how low the British film industry had sunk in the 70s.
A British aristocrat played by Peter Cushing is killed by the Knights who say "ni" and it's up to his son coming all the way from America to solve the case. The whole thing is extremely silly, but Donald Pleasence, the head of "The Knights of Avalon" (a society dedicated to the medieval values of live, unfortunately gone vigilante), manages to look fairly omnious in full knights armour. Quite hard to track down these days.
Strange, I don't remember going to "Medieval Times" and actually see
people executed. Nor do I remember them taking the body outside and
throwing it on the street. Maybe somebody poisoned me.
In any case, this is one strange movie. And actually, it came off funny in an odd sort of way. There was a running gag with animals appearing at the desk of the man investigating the mysterious killings by the "Knights of Avalon".
I found it funny that nobody really did anything about it until the final showdown and the strange somewhat funny ending. The ending being funny because it was abrupt.
Overall, not your typical comedy with knights, but it has its moments. "C"
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