Captain Lionel Cash (Dick Shawn) marches into the tent of Colonel Bolt (Carroll O'Connor) as ordered, and awaits instructions. It is Sicily in 1943, and the Italian Army are losing the battle against the Allies, but those forces are overstretched, and Bolt wishes Cash to take Company C to investigate a small village which may be important, but probably isn't. They are both aware the troops are in need of rest and relaxation, but the war isn't going to wait around for them, and the by the book Cash believes strict discipline will get them where they need to be. He is somewhat perturbed by Bolt's request that he say "Good night, Max" to him as he leaves, but it doesn't matter, he is soon applying himself with vigour...
Blake Edwards became known for his comedies in the nineteen-sixties, though he dabbled in drama and thrillers as well, but it was his Pink Panther movies which, for better or worse, defined his career in the eyes of the public. He had recently enjoyed a big hit with the second of those, A Shot in the Dark, so recruited the screenwriter of that, William Peter Blatty (now best known for The Exorcist), to take an idea about a war movie and whip it into shape. This was the result, inspired by that question many veterans of the Second World War would be familiar with, yet for some reason it was not as well regarded as many of Edwards' other comedies, no matter that it was a lavish production.
Well, there was one reason glaringly obvious to many of those who settled down with it: this just wasn't funny. Although the notion of enemy armies setting aside their differences to live it up then pull the wool over the eyes of their superiors wasn't bad at all, as it played here there just wasn't enough material to justify two hours of it. Not when there wasn't one decent laugh in the whole thing, in spite of a talented and willing cast and a team behind the camera who had proven their worth elsewhere. Sometimes the stars do not align even though they would appear to be heading in the right direction, and that the case with this, substituting frantic action for anything much resembling a series of jokes that would have lifted what grew to be a tedious experience.
Take Dick Shawn, a legendary nightclub comedian who more often than not found the confines of the screen a poor fit for his wild, eccentric comedy. The following year he was to be awarded by Mel Brooks with the only role that truly captured his distinct comic personality in The Producers, which saw him cast as a hip Hitler in the sure to be a flop stage musical centrepiece of the movie, but here he was stuck in a buttoned down role that restricted his potential. He did get to play a sequence in drag, but that was such a cliché that it was simply a tired attempt at getting a laugh, the sort of laziness that did Shawn no good, though he was simply acting the role as written. And then there was his co-star, James Coburn as Lieutenant Christian.
Christian was intended to sum up the increasing mood of counterculture anti-authoritarianism that the decade was breeding, but while you could see this as a precursor to war movies that would pick that up and run with it mere years later, efforts such as MASH, Kelly's Heroes and Catch 22 as the Vietnam War soured the mood of the nation, it was halfhearted in that direction at best. Maybe it was the Joseph Heller novel of Catch 22 that had brought about the artistic drive to make satire of armed conflict, it was still a must read around the time of this film, and both that and this were set in Italy during World War 2, but What Did You Do...? was strictly updated burlesque and far from any kind of acid wit mixed with healthy surrealism and humanity. Putting Harry Morgan in it as a Colonel who goes mad in the village catacombs was indicative of the problems: might have sounded funny, but the execution was lacking. Sergio Fantoni (as the Italian officer) and Giovanna Ralli (as the token female) brightened it a little, but ironically it was a losing battle. Music by Henry Mancini.