Last week I managed to win The Beatles movie Help! on DVD on EBay. It arrived yesterday and I watched the film for the first time in literally years. Help! has often been comapared to The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night. In fact, it has often been considered inferior to that first movie. I am not sure that such comparisons are fair myself. While both movies were directed by Richard Lester, both movies star The Beatles, and both movies feature musical segments with Beatles songs, in some ways the two films are very different. Obviously A Hard Day's Night was shot in black and white, while Help! was shot in Eastmancolor. Beyond that, however, A Hard Days Night is an exaggerated portrayl of approximately 48 hours in the lives of The Beatles, while Help! is sheer fantasy. Both have surrealism, humour, and Beatles songs, but in some ways the two are very different movies.
Indeed, it must be kept in mind that from the time A Hard Day's Night had been conceived to the time that Help! (originally titled Eight Arms to Hold Me) was developed, The Beatles' circumstances had changed enormously. At the time that A Hard Day's Night was conceived, The Beatles were primarily a British phenomenon. It would be a few months before they took America by storm. Help! was conceived when The Beatles were the most popular rock act in the world. Help! could then afford a bigger budget, with sequences shot around the world, not to mention not a few special effects.
Essentially, Help! is a spoof of the James Bond and other spy adventures fashionable in that time. The loose plot concerns the efforts of the cultists of Kaili to retrieve a sacrificial ring from Ringo's finger. To complicate matters, a mad scientist scientist (Victor Spinetti, who played the TV director in A Hard Day's Night) also wants the ring so he can, as might be expected, "rule the world." The movie sees The Beatles travel to such locales as the Swiss Alps, the Bahamas, and Buckingham palace. Not only does the plot poke fun at Bondian adventure, but manages to take a few swipes at war movies, skiing competitions, and other pop culture artefacts.
Over all, the loose plot, with The Beatles moving from one set piece to another, works quite well. There are some very funny moments in the movie, such as Paul being shrunk to only a few inches tall, John trying to convince Ringo to simply cut off his finger, and a struggle at a near Eastern restaurant while diners simply continue eating. And Help! has some wonderful surreal moments, such as when a swimmer surfaces in a frozen Swiss lake looking for the White Cliffs of Dover and The Beatles recording in the middle of a field. Leo McKern (best known as the one man to play Number Two from The Prisoner twice and Rumpole of the Bailey) gives a good performance as High Priest Kang, as does Victor Spinetti as the nefarious Dr. Foote.
Of course, Help! does have its shortcomings. While the songs in A Hard Day's Night blended seamlessly into the plot, there are times when the musical sequences in Help! almost seem as if they were simply inserted in. There are also times when The Beatles themselves seem to get lost in all of what is going on, reminding me of the comment from John Lennon about being "extras in their own movie."
As I see it, however, these are minor flaws that really don't distract from enjoying the movie. Help! is the fun sort of British film that they stopped making in the Sixties, fitting in quite well with such comedies as The Mouse That Roared and The Wrong Box. Indeed, in many ways the film feels like a Sixties version of the Marx Brothers films, only with rock music. I would recommend it to anyone, not just Beatles fans.