Film Score: Ken Thorne Cinematography: David Watkin
Starring: The Beatles, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron and Roy Kinnear
A Hard Day's Night was something of a pseudo documentary in black and white, Help! was a full-fledged motion picture in living color. Unfortunately, that was the only interesting thing about the film. Dick Lester, who had directed the earlier film, was given a bigger budget and the group wanted to spend every penny by going to Austria and the Caribbean, but where the film really fails is the screenplay. Marc Behn had been successful with the independent Cary Grant vehicle Charade two years earlier, while co-writer Charles Wood had only written for television to that point. And while Wood had a long and distinguished career in Britain, there wasn’t a lot he could do with this story. While the Beatles are the nominal stars of the film, they really don’t have a lot to do other than run around doing silly things. Everyone in the group admitted that they were stoned most of the time, and so that probably didn’t help to make them put a lot of effort into their performances. The rather thin story is simply an excuse for a series of gags of rather dubious quality and the nonsensical running around of the cast. The only part of the film that still holds up today are the music performances, and they are generally good. The one that has them goofing around in the snow is less so, but it’s easy to see why fans at the time were enamored of the film.
The film opens on a fictional far-Eastern temple, with Leo McKern about to make a human sacrifice. But he’s stopped when one of his acolytes, Eleanor Bron, sees that the victim isn’t wearing the sacrificial ring. As the worshipers begin looking for the ring it is suddenly seen on the hand of, who else but Ringo, as the opening credits begin with the Beatles singing the title song. The video is in black and white, and halfway through the reason becomes clear as darts begin to hit the drummer. McKern is watching them on film and throwing the darts, then decides to go after the ring. In London the four lads are seen going into adjoining houses, with no walls between inside. And that’s when the comedy, if it can even be called that, ensues. Lennon reads his own book on his sunken bed, Harrison has grass in his bedroom complete with a gardener, Starr has vending machines along one wall, and McCartney is seen playing a Wurlitzer organ that comes up out of the floor. All the while McKern and Bron try all kinds of convoluted ways to get the ring off of Ringo’s finger. Mercifully, the group plays another song to stop the lame attempt humor that permeates the film. While McKern and company make several attempts to chop off Ringo’s hand to get the ring, for some unknown reason Bron stops them. At the same time, scientists Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti are after it too. Finally the group learns that if he can’t get the ring off, he’ll have to be sacrificed, which leads to chases through the Alps and the Bahamas.
The film was generally given positive reviews at the time, and there is a certain type of British comedy film of the period that the film can be considered part of. The original version of The Italian Job is one example of this kind of comedy, which doesn’t really translate to modern audiences at all. Part of the idea for the film sends up the James Bond films, which United Artists owned, but much of the action failed to capitalize on that connection. Leo McKern does about as well as could have been done with the script he was given. Eleanor Bron, who was supposed to be the Bond girl of the film, was great to look at but her motivation was a bit muddy. Even after she had saved her sister from sacrifice she continues to rescue Ringo. And as nonsensical as McKern and his followers are, Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti make an already confusing plot even more incomprehensible. But then, that was probably the point. Contemporary audiences seemed to enjoy simply seeing the Fab Four in anything. And the film was highly influential, as it provided the template for the Monkees television show and their subsequent success in the U.S. Ultimately, robbing the Beatles of their true persona--the primary element that made A Hard Day's Night such a successful film in its own right--is what really nullifies whatever potential Help! had as a film. As a piece of Beatles paraphernalia it’s actually quite endearing. As a piece of art, however, it fails miserably.