The time is World War One, and the place is London where the singer Lili Smith (Julie Andrews) is a huge star on the stage, performing night after night for the troops and the public, even going as far as lifting their spirits as the airships fly above the capital and drop bombs, with impromptu renditions of such popular standards as Pack Up Your Troubles. But Lili has a secret: she's not really Lili Smith at all, she's Lili Schmidt, a half-British half-German woman whose allegiances are with the Kaiser. She uses her position of privilege to gain access to the most important Generals of the Allies, and passes on the information she gleans to her German bosses later...
One of the huge flops in the musical genre that occurred when the nineteen-sixties turned into the nineteen-seventies, famously Darling Lili only made back a fifth of its twenty-five-million-dollar budget, the equivalent of hundreds of millions in twenty-first century money. It was a love letter from its director Blake Edwards to his wife Julie Andrews, yet as many were wont to point out, he did not appear to have any grasp of what made audiences warm to the performer other than it provided her with a showcase for her crystal-clear singing at various points around its elephantine running time: well over two hours, all told, though Edwards created a shorter director's cut.
Mind you, he created it some years after the film had been a complete disaster back in 1970, far too long after the fact and by then it was only the diehard fans of a curious nature who were interested in finding out what he had apparently intended after all. Even so, in that shortened version it still dragged on shapelessly for over the two hour mark, and the fundamental issue was impossible to address anyway: we didn't want to see Julie as a German spy working against the heroic British forces. It didn't matter that this was based around the story of Mata Hari, possibly the most famous female spy of them all, Andrews simply didn't have that kind of sex appeal, nor that mystique.
Another drawback was that Edwards didn't know what to do with his basic plot once he had conceived it, or rather, he might have done, but it got away from him as the studio demanded recuts and reshoots which bloated the budget even further. It had been shot in 1968, and you can tell there was something up when delays in the post-production kept it off the screens for at least a couple of years, but that was nothing in comparison to actually watching what turned out to be deadly tedious when you cared nothing for the duplicitous Lili, and only slightly more for the dashing American pilot played by her co-star Rock Hudson who nevertheless came across like a dummy when not only did he not twig why she was asking him these searching questions, but also when he blabbed precious information to her regardless.
Henry Mancini's score did, at least, contain a couple of pretty, wistful tunes for Andrews to trill, one right at the beginning which impressed for being captured in a single take. It was downhill from that point on, however, with the only other highlight being the aerial photography where the dogfights between vintage aircraft - biplanes and triplanes - were impressively presented, though how much of that was down to Edwards and how much was down to his second unit was uncertain. Fatally, the film wanted to be a comedy as well as a romance, a war yarn, a spy drama and a musical, and the humour here (co-written with William Peter Blatty) sank like a stone, especially the pseudo-Inspector Clouseau French officials on Lili's trail who were ordered to indulge Edwards in deadening slapstick. Maybe the main crime here was that it didn't take the conflict seriously: it is possible in a comedy to make sincere points, but here it was all an extravaganza designed as a showcase for Mrs Edwards, and that was more troubling than transporting. Way too much snogging, too.