I’ve yet to meet anyone who would pick Bonnie Scotland as their favourite Stan and Ollie feature – but I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s their worst film either. There are some nice jokes and some elegant sequences to be found but the film doesn’t tell a story that you’re particularly invested in, and you’d much rather spend an hour or so watching almost any three Laurel and Hardy shorts back to back.
Most of Bonnie Scotland is not set in Scotland but in India. Stan and Ollie have escaped from prison, a week before their release date, and stowed away across the Atlantic in the expectation that Stan is about to inherit a fortune. Ending up with just a snuffbox and a set of bagpipes, they end up accidentally joining the British army and find themselves part of a Scottish regiment in India. They spend some time exasperating their commanding officer James Finlayson before finally thwarting an attack on fort in a way that somehow (but not directly) reminds me of the end of Carry on up the Khyber.
Stan and Ollie formed part of the thin blue line of French colonialism in two movies, so here they are as part of the thin red line of British imperial enforcement. This film’s crude’s stereotyping of the tribes of the North West frontier is of course very deplorable and highly representative of other films of the period, such as Charge of the Light Brigade (which is also proportionately far more about India than its title seems to advertise) made a year later and starring Errol Flynn. However, Bonnie Scotland is above all a parody of such films and their conventions. We are not watching depictions of indigenous Indians or Afghans but depictions of depictions of Indians and Afghans on film.
Stan and Ollie have no sense of the big picture here, no sense of “what they’re fighting for”. Whenever Stan and Ollie end up in uniform, it’s always by accident. They are without ideological commitment, though here as elsewhere, they are capable of demonstrating a sincere fondness for individual platoon members. Accordingly, there’s a romantic subplot to this movie that you will forget all about as soon as the credits roll.
So Bonnie Scotland can be summed up as a loose kit-bag of a film that has some nice things in it.
What you will remember are individual sequences. You’ll remember Ollie sneezing himself into a river and then sneezing the entire river dry. You’ll remember the strangely shrinking fish. You’ll remember a new strange thing that Stan can do with his body involving sticking his finger in his mouth and blowing so as to levitate his helmet.
Above all, perhaps, you’ll remember dancing. The dance that the boys perform when they are supposed to be picking up trash is delicious in his own right. Even more representative is the way in which they transform a forced march into a far more delightfully choreographed column. When Stan and Ollie subvert forms of military discipline, it seems to evoke a fleeting sense of a better world – in which skipping and dancing has overtaken marching.
A world in which the armies of the world skipped to Stan and Ollie’s steps rather than marched to the orders of deskbound generals, would be a more peaceful and loving world. Stan and Ollie cannot win, of course – but they can at least give us a hilarious and heartwarming glimpse.
I have some thoughts about other Laurel and Hardy films