I must admit I’m not fully cognisant with Ringo’s forays into the film world, although I have seen a few. I sat through the whole of Sextette (1978) – not an easy task, let me tell you – for just one, admittedly fun, Starr scene. I rented Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1970) once, which was even worse. Caveman (1980) was watchable, but still didn’t come anywhere near the wonderful That’ll Be the Day (1973), the undisputed high watermark in his solo cinematic ventures. The Magic Christian (1969), however, has always been a source of fascination and disappointment for me, though for reasons nothing to do with Ringo. I saw it a long time ago, but when it surfaced on UK schedules recently I felt it was time for another look.
It was Ringo’s second film without the other Fabs, following on from Candy (also an adaptation of a novel by Terry Southern) the previous year. But unlike that one, which featured him in a glorified cameo, The Magic Christian gave him a full-blown starring role, alongside Peter Sellers. Ringo plays a vagrant who is adopted by the world’s richest man, Sir Guy Grand (Sellers), who then proceeds to demonstrate how money can corrupt anyone, from waiters and traffic wardens to art dealers and sportsmen. That’s roughly the plot, anyway, as it makes several deviations for no apparent reason. For this is one of those trippy, free-form, pop art satires so in vogue in the late-60s/early-70s (like Casino Royale, Head, Tommy and – to a certain extent – Magical Mystery Tour). You know the sort of thing – lots of quirky camera angles and tight close-ups, a sprinkling of animation, plenty of pokes at tradition and ‘the Establishment’, a flash or two of nudity, some random anti-war messaging, a few famous cameos and the occasional surreal sequence which can only be filed under “drug inspired”.
The script features contributions (plus appearances) from John Cleese and Graham Chapman, just before the launch of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and it has something of the same anarchic feel to it. And there’s plenty of star power on board – Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Yul Brynner, Richard Attenborough, Roman Polanski and Laurence Harvey all crop up at various points, sometimes in the most bizarre fashion. And if you are from the UK and of a similar vintage to me, you’ll enjoy the fleeting appearances of old TV favourites like Alan Whicker, Harry Carpenter, John Le Mesurier and Michael Aspel. There’s also a point late on in the film where you are supposed to believe John and Yoko make a cameo, but I’m pretty sure they are just lookalikes. Might have been more effective if they had filmed two figures arriving in a bag.
I’m guessing Ringo got the role because the producers wanted an emblem of the counter-culture, to give the enterprise even more hip credibility, and he was the Beatle who had started to dip his toe into the acting world. As it turned out, they got two Fabs for the price of one, as Paul agreed to write the film’s theme tune, ‘Come and Get It’, loosely based on the theme of the story and recorded by Apple protégés Badfinger. Sticking closely to Paul’s demo recorded during the Abbey Road sessions and produced by Macca himself, the song duly served up a top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Played over the opening and closing credits of the film, the tune is also effectively rearranged as background music for some scenes in between.
To be honest, Ringo has very little to do other than accompany Sellers from scene to random scene looking surprised, doleful or amused, and occasionally say something like “that’s right, Dad” or “the old values are crumbling.” He does pull a series of funny faces during the scene with Spike Milligan, but to no great effect. His best moment comes when he suggests writing a “dirty, filthy” book but leaving blanks where all the rude words should go, to allow people to insert their own (so to speak). It’s a pretty forgettable part, really. But he does look quite handsome – I’ve always thought the 1969 ‘tache and long hair look really suited him – and gets to wear some natty outfits, from posh hunting tweeds (compete with deerstalker) to a tuxedo.
The film itself isn’t very memorable, either. I do like the late-winter/early-spring shots of 1969 London – just about still swinging – and there are a few laughs here and there. The Sotheby’s art auction scene is very funny. But most of it is just too heavy handed and pleased with itself to make much impact (the finale, if you can call it that, involves the leads filling a vat with animal blood, urine and excrement, chucking money into it, and inviting greedy city workers to wade in and get the cash. Yes, it’s that subtle). It’s one of those exercises of just throwing lots of ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks, nowhere more so than during the completely bonkers final reel when famous and wealthy passengers assemble for what they think is a pleasure cruise across the Atlantic. The script goes full-on hallucinatory (and indeed, nonsensical) at this point, throwing in homoerotic body builders, a drag singer, someone in a gorilla suit (always a plus, in my book) and Christopher Lee as a waiter-cum-vampire. But it also features the undoubted highlight of the film: Raquel Welch as The Mistress of the Whip.
I have to confess I was a Raquel Welch fan long before I was a Beatles fan. From a very early age, she was imprinted on my psyche as the perfect template for womanhood. So when I came across a photo in one of my early Beatles books of her with Ringo on the set of this film, dressed in such a revealing outfit, it was something I was pretty desperate to see. Alas, as it was hard to find on video and never shown on UK TV, I had a long wait, probably a decade or more. When I did finally get to see the scene, it didn’t disappoint; she may be surrounded by dozens of women rowers in the ship’s “engine room” who are completely naked, but you never take your eyes off Raquel’s lovely, statuesque dominatrix for a second. The downside is, she’s on screen for no more than 40 seconds. Which is pretty rich, considering promotional artwork for the film to this day leans heavily on her presence in it.
So there you have it. The Magic Christian was an odd, undistinguished but somewhat typical choice for Ringo in what would be a chequered film career. I guess acting was never really his priority, hence his scattershot attitude towards scripts which came his way. Still, the whole film is on YouTube if you want to explore it for yourself. Or, if you’re so inclined, you could just drop in for the Raquel scene (it’s about the 1:23 mark).