Before penning the book The Exorcist and its Academy Award-winning screen adaptation, William Peter Blatty was known primarily as a comedy writer and frequent collaborator of Blake Edwards. Their first project together was 1964’s A Shot In The Dark, which retooled an unrelated stage play as a vehicle for Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau character. For their follow-up, 1966’s What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?, Edwards came up with the story (aided by Maurice Richlin, his co-writer on The Pink Panther) and left it to Blatty to fashion it into a workable screenplay. He turned out a well-honed farce that gave Edwards and his cast a solid framework in which to improvise, which they did to superlative effect.
In immediate answer to the question that gives the film its title, Edwards and Blatty thrust viewers into the thick of a rousing montage of gorgeously photographed battles (courtesy of Edwards’ frequent cinematographer Philip Lathrop) from the 1943 Sicily campaign. Retreating from the front lines, the focus shifts to the field tent of General Bolt (a pre-All In The Family Carroll O’Connor), who gives his “by the book” aide Captain Cash (Dick Shawn) command of the exhausted Company C and orders him to take the strategic village of Valerno without any other support. This doesn’t sit well with the company’s easygoing Lieutenant Christian (James Coburn) or the rest of the rank-and-file soldiers dismayed their leave has been canceled, but orders are orders. Besides, when they reach their objective, they find it remarkably easy to take, since the entire town is off watching a soccer match. Ranking officer Captain Oppo (Sergio Fantoni) and his men are all too eager to surrender—as long as they get to enjoy their annual festival first. (“No festival, no surrender,” Oppo cheerfully explains.)
Knowing his men could use the R&R as much as their Italian counterparts, Christian takes it upon himself to convince the wary Cash to report that his troops are facing stiff resistance and let the festival go ahead as planned, enlisting the mayor’s voluptuous daughter Gina (Giovanna Ralli) to mollify Cash by getting him stinking drunk. Complications set in the following morning, though, as both sides have to fight off hangovers while keeping up the charade, first for an Army intelligence officer (Harry Morgan) who gets lost in the miles of catacombs underneath Valerno and rapidly loses his mind, then for the reconnaissance planes from all sides expecting to find them in a pitched battle for control of the town.
As the plot gains more moving parts, it becomes progressively more farcical, with Americans impersonating Italians, Italians impersonating Americans, and Americans and Italians impersonating Germans once the Nazis enter the fray. There’s even some good old-fashioned cross-dressing when one of the officers (guess who) poses as a prostitute and has to fend off the advances of an amorous Nazi. The most consistent running gags, though, are left to the townspeople, who use the chaos of the (mostly fake) conflict to advance their own agendas, whether it’s the clutch of communists out to get a notorious Nazi colonel, or the pair of dimwitted thieves attempting to tunnel their way into a bank vault, and winding up everywhere but.
For Edwards, What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? represented a step back from the previous year’s gargantuan The Great Race, but the less epic scale serves it well, letting the characters carry the comedy instead of the mechanics. In this regard, Coburn is the perfect lead, flashing his Cheshire Cat grin as he conspires with his down-to-earth sergeant (tough guy Aldo Ray, showing a distinct flair for comedy) to keep their plans from falling into disarray. But Shawn, fresh off It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and a year away from his career-defining role as Lorenzo St. DuBois in The Producers, is the real revelation. The evolution of Captain Cash from ramrod-straight martinet to one of the guys—with a stopover in falling-down drunk in between—is more of an arc than his characters tended to get, and it’s a pleasure.
The same goes for the film as a whole. It comes loaded with all manner of slapstick comedy and surreal sight gags, highlighted by the sequence where Christian rehearses a mock battle—complete with overdramatic death scenes—while the town’s civilians go about their daily business. It’s a juxtaposition Blatty explored in more detail in his directorial debut, 1980’s The Ninth Configuration, about a military psychiatrist tasked with determining whether soldiers are faking their insanity. Seems no matter what the war (in that case, Vietnam), some men will do whatever it takes not to fight in it.
Daddy went to war, but the only extra he came back with was a scratched-up, washed-out trailer.