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Carry On Up the Khyber (1968)



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The best of the Carry On series starts inauspiciously, with a couple of crass jokes that would seem to signal its decline. But then Carry On Up the Khyber becomes that rare series entry that is about something. The action takes place in India and is set during the British Empire's waning power there. The usual pratfalls and one-liners, for once, are not all just independent jokes stuffed into a historical setting but explore and poke fun at British stereotypes.

An exchange late in the film is a good example. Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sidney James, naturally) is asked what he intends to do. "Do? Do?" he exclaims. "We're British. We won't do anything." And then, indeed, he does nothing -- and still winds up quelling a native revolution, in what for me is the funniest scene in the entire Carry On cannon.

There are also a smattering of topical jokes, which despite no longer referring to contemporary news stories are general enough that they still work today. "They will die the death of a thousand cuts," Kenneth Williams snarls behind Indian make-up. "Still, the British are used to cuts." He and Bresslaw play Indian characters, which would have been politically incorrect even in 1968, except that it's clear who the joke is really on.

The regular cast are all at the top of their game. Peter Butterworth was never better than here (though his performance in Carry On Abroad and cameo in Carry On Again Doctor are just as good), and nor was Charles Hawtrey, who has some wonderful lines. Sidney James proves that his comedic talents were used best when he had something to do besides ogling women. Joan Sims is next to perfection. We also get a strong debut for new series regular Terry Scott (well, unless you count his small role in Carry On Sergeant). His blustering, no-nonsense sergeant character provides a great backboard for a lot of the one-liners.

It's unfortunate that the series so seldom ventured outside the comfortable, insulated humor of double entendres and pratfalls. Don't get me wrong -- Carry On Up the Khyber has plenty of these, too -- but its wit behind the madness elevates this episode above its peers. Carry On Cabby (1963) and Carry On At Your Convenience (1971) were the only other two that had a hint of social satire beneath its lowbrow veneer. They, too, rank at the top of the series for that reason.

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