Arts, Culture & Media

How to Remain Relevant Without Trying: 'Carry On…Up The Khyber'


Private Jimmy Widdle (Charles Hawtrey) paints a red line as a defense against Afghan attackers in "Carry On...Up The Khyber" (Photo: YouTube screen grab)

Carry On…Up The Khyber was made in 1968. It's safe to say that the people who made it weren't aiming for a classic. But in spite of itself this film has taken on new significance over the years.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

The movie is set in 1895, in the part of British India that today is Pakistan and Afghanistan. The story is utterly ridiculous: anti-British locals stage an uprising after they discover that soldiers in the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment wear underpants under their kilts, and are therefore not at all fearsome. With characteristic sangfroid, the British provincial governor, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, responds to an assault on his palace by "doing nothing."

The plot lurches from one farcical set-piece to another, most of them involving military ineptitude or cross-dressing. And there are endless jokes about "tiffin"–a euphemism for sex. And all the characters– whether western or Asian– are played by white British actors.

Yet Carry On…Up The Khyber seems prescient. Its characters have their equivalents in the Soviet and American occupations of Afghanistan: out-of-touch occupying commanders who misinterpret the locals; corrupt, double-crossing warlords; bearded tribal fighters.

Not that Carry On…Up The Khyber ever intended to be a sharp political satire– if anything it was satirizing British films and novels that glorified the Empire.

With the American presence in Afghanistan winding down, its seemed Carry on up the Khyber's renewed relevance could be numbered. But there's the sting in the film's tail.

In the final reel, the tribesmen are bearing down on the British. Things are looking desperate. A British soldier paints a red line on the ground: