World War II has always been a rich source for powerful storytelling
and spectacular action, whether as a backdrop to a compelling love story
or, as with Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a complete reimagining of the global conflict itself, but few films have taken such a liberty with history as Jackboots on Whitehall. Using puppets and toys to tell an epic war tale filled with wacky characters and silly humour, it is easy to see why the film is being hailed as the British Team America.
The film starts with an action-packed dogfight, complete with pilot
camaraderie and a remarkable sweeping score, but it is not long before history is completely rewritten and
the news is announced that the entire British army is stuck in Dunkirk
and so, with no military support to defend the country, three of the top
Nazis, Goering (Griffiths), Goebbels (Wilkinson) and Himmler (O’Brien) plan to invade England by drilling under the English Channel and into London.
In the meantime, a young farm worker named Chris (McGregor),
who was unable to join the army because of his extraordinarily large
hands, rallies together a ragtag band of reluctant villagers, including
his long-time sweetheart Daisy (Pike), and joins forces with Churchill (Spall) and the last soldiers left in England – a small group of Punjabi Guards – to defend against the country falling into Nazi hands.
The stellar voice cast belies the film’s obvious low budget, giving
it a rich characterisation that makes up for the apparently crude
animation onscreen. With the array of talent lending silly voices and
impressions to juxtapose with McGregor’s honest and earnest Chris, the
film ends up being a brilliantly funny mixing pot of instantly recognisable historical figures and British stereotypes,
including a foul-mouthed Vicar, a protective matron and a horde of
savage Scotsmen. As the film follows Chris’ hero story, seeing him save
the day and get the girl, its best and funniest moments are owned by the
background characters. Case in point is the hilariously ignorant US
soldier Fiske, who mistakes the Nazis for ‘Soviets’, the Punjabi Guards
as ‘crazy Polacks’ and Churchill for ‘the British President’.
However, this is not to detract from the visual accomplishments that first-time filmmakers Edward and Rory McHenry
achieve with Jackboots on Whitehall. While the seemingly low-rent
production values of this film may put off potential viewers, a lot of
the sequences, particularly the action set-pieces, are incredibly well polished, with ‘stunts’ and explosions playing out as if lifted from a Michael Bay blockbuster.
In fact, the co-directing, co-writing brothers blend CGI and
animatronics seamlessly, resulting in a film that is likely to suck in
its audience to the point that each occasionally clunky moment, where
onscreen characters move awkwardly across the screen, just adds to the
film’s immense charm.
It helps that the McHenry brothers are clearly movie buffs, littering
the script with pop culture references and nods to other films, as well
as occasionally recreating iconic moments from well-known blockbusters,
such as a skull-crushing shot from Terminator 2: Judgement Day and the
climactic battle scene from Braveheart. While some of these homages feel
marginally dated, it is always clear that Jackboots on Whitehall is the work of two people who are infatuated with cinema, and it is this passion that remains at the heart of the film.
The only downfall of this leftfield take on World War II is that the twee Python-esque comedy often strays into infantile humour,
with too much reliance placed on imaginative swearing and lewd innuendo
rather than clever scripting, but perhaps childishness should be
expected of a film told using toys. After all, while the film is
actually more reminiscent of animated sketch show Robot Chicken, the
Team America comparisons are well deserved – if that hugely popular
puppet movie took its cues from shows like Thunderbirds, here the
McHenry brothers have let their imagination loose on a war-themed
toy-set. Surely it is only a matter of time now before somebody lets
them make a live-action blockbuster, allowing them to play with the real