Dir: Gerald Thomas, 1992
The 31st and last of the Carry On series, Columbus saw an attempt to revive the franchise that had kept British audiences entertained for over thirty years.
1992 was the 500 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. To celebrate, two films were rushed into production; Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise and John Glen’s Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. Seizing the opportunity, producer Peter Rogers, saw the anniversary as potential for a new Carry On movie.
However, there was a major problem; fan favourites of the cast had passed on. Sid James had died sixteen years earlier, both Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey four years prior.
Non-regular, Frankie Howerd, with only two appearances under his belt, signed on but died before filming began. The remaining famous faces took one look at the script and balked, before running out the door.
Without most of your regular players, you haven’t really got a Carry On film. So what do you do? Simple. Replace them with comics and actors that were popular at the time and have them ape their predecessors.
And, like trying to use a hammer to unscrew a bolt, it doesn’t work.
Map maker, Christopher Columbus (erstwhile series regular, Jim Dale) believes that he can cross the Indes by sea. If he succeeds, traders will not have to travel through Turkey and pay import and export costs to the Sultan (Rik Mayall).
Assembling a group of criminals and hard up street merchants, Columbus and his brother Bart (Peter Richardson) set for sail, unawares that the Sultan has ordered to spies (Sara Crowe and Alexei Sayle) to join the crew and sabotage Columbus’ expedition.
Carry On Columbus was never going to brilliant. The heart of the films had long since expired and Talbot Rothwell had passed the screenplay duties on to new writers, who didn’t really have an understanding of what made the films tick. Double entendres had been substituted for smut and vulgarity with the innocence and postcard humour stripped away. It was no surprise that the Carry On’s Behind, England and Emmannuelle bombed.
Writing the script for Columbus had reverted back to previous scribe, Dave Freeman (the man responsible for Behind) and first timer John Antrobus. The time spent between Behind and Columbus had allowed Freeman to revisit the Rothwell years and get a hang of the humour.
This last and, to date, final in the catalogue does improve on the last two entries, England and Emmannuelle. The corny jokes and eye-rolling gags, are a welcome return to the old formula.
That cheekiness that drove the films, is present, once again, with lines like:
“Man eating sharks. Mind you don’t fall in!”.
“You don’t think they’d eat me whole?”
“No. I’m told they spit that out.”
It’s a terrible pun, but that’s how the series worked. You can’t help but groan at how awful it is, yet smile because it’s funny. Want another one?
“He’s a serial killer. He beats his victims to death with a sack of Rice Krispies”
As you can see, the ghosts of Rothwell and Norman Hudis, haunt the proceedings, possessing both Freeman and Antrobus, guiding their hand to a real Carry On script.
Any lover of the Carry On films, will smirk at this and they’ll do this because the scent of roses that emanate from the pages, transfers to the screen, reminding the viewer of a glorious bygone era.
However, the scent is greatly diluted because of the new cast.
You could never replace Sid James, Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey. Their idiosyncrasies made them favourites of the series and you can’t replicate that.
Gay comedian Julian Clary is hired to provide the campy undercurrent that ran through the films, usually the courtesy of Williams and Hawtrey.
Director Gerald Thomas was wise not to have the new stars try and BE the old ones. He employs them to fill the void of humour and characterisation that James et al so ably delivered.
But, need them the film does and their absence has a detrimental effect on the success of the script.
It lacks the memorable lines found, and fondly remembered, from the classic era such as Cleo with “infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”.
Sid James’ lecherous leers and filthy laugh are desperately missed, with Jim Dale attempting the horny grunt that the South African born Cockney did so well. There is no pompous authority that Williams conveyed so excellently in all of his roles.
The cast is made up of “alternative” comedians that made their name on the comedy circuit in the eighties and from shows such as The Young Ones and The Comic Strip Presents but they just don’t have that talent or panache that the regulars did.
A tad silly at times, the slapstick doesn’t work and does make you wince.
Panned upon release, its reputation hasn’t improved over the years and was, once, unfairly voted the worst British film of all time. Critics and the general public refused to accept the movie without the regulars. Although it badly needs the original team, it’s nowhere near as bad as is often made out.
Ultimately, I’m defending Carry On Columbus. It’s a fun film that does have its moments and share of laughs and, if you let yourself go with the film, you can get plenty of enjoyment out of it.
Not a masterpiece but a hundred times better England or Emmannuelle.