In one segment of ‘The Extraordinary Career of Wendy Toye’ documentary, found on the extras of The Teckman Mystery Blu-ray, it is mentioned how the films Toye directed after her debut were developed with an amount of conflict. Toye was a clear creative trapped between her artistic expression and the studio’s wish for a typical commercial product. We Joined The Navy is a strong example. A film that highlights Toye’s technical craft but is bogged with a story which starts amusingly before sliding into something rather middling. Its general silliness is fun to watch, while the sly jabs at the naval institution are enjoyable at a time when all satire appears to be dead. However, the film’s one hour and 45 minute runtime seems far more testing than it should be, weighed down by an uninteresting diversion into a country’s revolution during the film’s final third.
There’s more than a little to enjoy for fans of a certain type of British comedy. Much like so many comedies of the time, We Joined the Navy sticks to the formula. Take an institution, fill it with eccentrics and/or stereotypes and let the rabble run the roost. In the case of We Joined the Navy, the film follows the seemingly unflappable Lieutenant Commander Robert Badger, a naval officer of some stature. Unfortunately, Badger’s trait of telling the truth lands him transferred to The Royal Naval College. There he is handed the job of turning a band of unremarkable toerags into upstanding members of the force: a situation which leads the entire group to set Anglo-American relations back a couple of decades until a country’s revolution rears its head.
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Fans of the classic ‘Doctor’ series or the infamous Carry-On franchise would find a lot to get on with. Cameos by Dirk Bogarde and Sid James are placed in the film for that very reason, popping up to remind viewers of what type of film this is with a wink and a nod. That said, like Elvis memorabilia, we may be in the realm of diminishing returns. If you know who these people are then you’ll be reading this with a shrug. Younger folk will possibly need to Google or Wiki who Dr Simon Sparrow is.
Amusingly, fans of Police Academy (1984) may even get a kick out of some of We Joined the Navy’s earlier stages. Despite being decades apart, both films follow a similar structure. Many of the areas it mines jokes from aren’t too dissimilar either, as both films love to raid the many stock characters you’d expect to find in such a lark. But while Toye’s misfits are not as crass as Hugh Wilson’s rebels without a cause, at least We Joined a Navy is lovingly captured. This comes from Toye creating interesting compositions which help utilise the Cinemascope aspect well.
However, the playfulness which illuminated Toye’s award-winning short films is strangely limited here. Early gags are slyly droll, and the director’s fondness for complicated cross-cutting of various situations is seen in the latter half of the movie. Yet the film’s transitions of the farce lack bite. The earlier half of the movie suggests a satire that the latter half never feels committed to. It doesn’t help that after a well-choreographed burlesque sequence, We Joined the Navy lacks any big laughs until its climactic revolution scenes, and even then, the gags are only half as strong.
One has to wonder how much compromise Toye may have gone through during the production. A formidable tone is taken by Toye on one of the Blu-ray’s extras, an episode of the series Visions. “The question I’m always asked is what’s it like to do a man’s Job” Toye laments. While The Teckman Mystery had Toye finding some wiggle room to play with flawed men whose brashness may get them into trouble, We Joined the Navy feels very much like the director following the blueprint that they’ve been given. In the Visions episode, Toye details how being placed under contract meant any choice of subject matter was taken away from her. Instead of the more fantastical themes Toye desired, she was forced into typical film fare. We Joined the Navy gives a strong example of this.
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The Blu-ray itself, like The Teckman Mystery, is a solid affair. A decent transfer of the main film, despite the original film stock holding a lot of noise. The extras include the playful short, ‘A King’s Breakfast’, based on AA Milne’s poem. A jovial musical which plays to Toye’s strengths as a visual director. It’s full of colourful designs and elaborate silent performances. Much like Toye’s other shorts, it’s the kind of spirited film that feels more in the director’s wheelhouse. There’s a round of interviews with film historians Jo Botting and Pamela Hutchinson, following on from the first part of the conversation found in The Teckman Mystery Blu-ray. Rounding off the disc is a batch of behind-the-scenes stills. The episode of Visons found on the disc is an intriguing find. Something worth seeking out for cinephiles looking to discover more about female directors.
We Joined the Navy is out on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on 21st November from Studiocanal.