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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was extremely eager to see this film when it was shown (in July 1996)
at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna; they screened a print from
the Narodni Filmovy Archiv with the original Czech intertitles.
Fortunately, much of the broad comedy in this film works splendidly
even for viewers like me who aren't fluent in Czech.
Jaroslav Hasek's novel "The Good Soldier Schweik" seems to be well-known all over the world except where people speak English: very few people in Britain or Australia seem to be aware of it, and in America my inquiries have produced only shrugs. Which is a shame, since quite a few pieces of American culture -- notably 'Gomer Pyle'. 'No Time for Sergeants' and 'Catch-22' -- seem to be very strongly influenced by Hasek's novel, which continues to be popular throughout Europe in various translations.
Basically, Schweik (like Gomer Pyle) is a patriotic simpleton who is eager to be a good soldier, but keeps screwing up through his own incompetence and stupidity. Yet somehow -- again like Gomer Pyle -- he always comes up trumps in spite of himself.
This 1926 Czech film takes some of the plot from Hasek's novel and goes off in a different direction. Here, the story begins in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. When Schweik babbles about this, he is mistakenly assumed to be part of the assassination conspiracy, and is arrested. Two befuddled doctors attempt to examine him, and conclude (correctly) that Schweik is an idiot. Well, that makes him perfect material for the army. After getting conscripted into the infantry, Schweik develops brain fever ... although Schweik getting brain fever is like a fish getting sore feet. Eventually he gets cured by an exotic baroness. Then, for incredibly stupid reasons, the incredibly stupid Schweik gets arrested for stealing a dog. He's actually guilty of that crime, but now he gets falsely accused of being a Russian spy.
SPOILERS NOW. Anybody who was likely to see this movie in 1926 would surely have been familiar with the original novel ... so it's no surprise that this movie ends the same way as the book: in spite of himself, Schweik becomes a hero and is decorated for valour. Just like a typical episode of 'Gomer Pyle'.
'The Good Soldier Schweik' was so popular in Hasek's native Austria-Hungary (or Czechoslovakia, or Czech Republic, or whatever they're calling it this week) that several spin-off films were made, featuring the Schweik character in similar adventures. But without the insanity of a military background to play against, the Schweik character was less effective. This 1926 movie sticks comparatively close to Hasek's source material; it's very funny, and I'll rate it 8 out of 10.
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