Monday, January 27, 2014

Hawmps! (1976)

          After scoring a surprise box-office hit with the independently made canine adventure Benji (1974), director Joe Camp was in a position to try something different—so for his second feature, he used a little-known historical episode from the pre-Civil War era as the basis for a gentle comedic romp. Hawmps! depicts the misadventures of a U.S. Army squad tasked with testing camels as possible replacements for horses in desert outposts. Given the nature of Camp’s previous film, it’s surprising that very little of the picture is devoted to the specifics of animal behavior—in fact, only two of the camels are given memorable names and “personalities.” Instead of focusing on critters, Camp builds jokes around the broadly sketched—and unapologetically clichéd—characters populating the Army squad, including a drunken Irishman, an inexperienced lieutenant, and a stalwart drill sergeant. The only surprising character is an Arabian camel trainer named H. Jolly, played by Gino Conforti, because the character is a British-schooled dandy with a monocle.
          Hawmps! is shallow and silly, but it basically works in an undemanding sort of way. Whether Camp is staging elaborate slapstick sequences of barroom brawls or vignettes of dehydrated soldiers trudging through the desert, the director keeps things amiable and lively. Plus, the picture is billed right in the opening credits as “a family film by Joe Camp,” so the mandate clearly was to make lighthearted entertainment suitable for very young viewers. And if Hawmps! is ultimately little more than a Disney knock-off made without the glossy cinematography and lavish production values one normally associates with Disney’s live-action fare, the movie has the benefit of an offbeat historical basis, and Camp resists the sentimental excesses that make similar Disney movies (such as the Apple Dumpling Gang pictures) unnecessarily saccharine.
          James Hampton, a pleasant comic actor who costarred in the ’60s series F Troop, which was something of a stylistic precedent for this movie, plays Lt. Clemmons, a Washington, D.C., gofer who gets assigned the thankless task of supervising the camel experiment. Upon arriving at an outpost in the West, Clemmons takes command of a squad led by Sgt. Tibbs (Christopher Connelly), even though Tibbs’ men all misunderstood their orders and thought they were getting Arabian horses instead of Arabian camels. High jinks ensue as the camel-riding soldiers clash with the cantankerous sergeant (Slim Pickens) of a rival squad, and with an outlaw (Jack Elam) who commands a town filled with criminals. The movie features lots of chaotic physical comedy—people falling off camels or tripping into mud, and so on—and the dialogue is occasionally cartoonish. Still, most of the actors in Hawmps! are stone-cold pros, including those previously mentioned plus Denver Pyle, and the sight of bluecoated U.S. soldiers chasing after crooks or Indians while riding on camels is reliably amusing.

Hawmps!: FUNKY

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