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United Artists was the studio of the 1960s, a veritable success machine that grew rich on the output of producers like the Mirisch Brothers and directors like Billy Wilder, John Sturges, Norman Jewison and Sergio Leone. The deal of the decade had to be UA's roll of the dice on 1964's A Hard Day's Night. They had already caught the monster James Bond 007 wave, and this deal made them the movie studio of The Beatles.
The director of the smash hit Beatles musical was an American transplant with a positive reputation but not a great deal of filmic success. Richard Lester followed up his Hard Day's Night with a key film of "swingin' London", The Knack - and How to Get it, the Beatles follow-up Help! and a musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. All of these shows either did well or were critical successes. Then Richard Lester filmed How I Won the War, a movie that attracted plenty of critical notice but received scant distribution in the U.S.. The movie is a comedy and one of its stars is Beatle John Lennon in his first 'character' role ... what was the problem?
The answer is, "a number of problems." How I Won the War is an anti-war satire released at the height of the Vietnam War, at a time when film fare of this kind was generally considered not irreverent but downright subversive. 1 The film's comedy is also extremely British, making constant use of slang dialogue and Brit army expressions. If you were around for the onslaught of A Hard Day's Night, you'll remember that American teens rushed to Beatles fan magazines for explanations of the half-mumbled Liverpuddlian argot spoken by the Fab Four. How I Won the War is awash in jargon we Yanks never heard of.
Richard Lester's improvisations on the script by Lester's frequent collaborator Charles Wood reference specific elements fo the British comedy tradition. The story, such as it is, relies on gags and routines seemingly sourced from the British Music Hall, with a generous helping of Goon Show absurdity. On top of this Lester heaps generous portions of post-modern cinematic endistancing effects. Not only do people address the camera (in Music Hall asides, admittedly) but the story fractures into several parallel plot lines. In addition to the main farce, we see the same characters in a much more realistic, B&W beach landing story. The main character remains in action in the farce scenes, but another fractured alternate reality shows him captured by the Germans.
An incredibly unfit and poorly motivated British fighting unit trains in England. Incompetent Lt. Goodbody (Michael Crawford of The Knack) talks a lot but fools nobody; his troop of malingerers, cowards and malcontents excel only in their skill with insults and complaints. Chubby Clapper (the wonderful Roy Kinnear) is convinced that his wife back in England is sleeping with every man she meets. Private Gripweed (John Lennon) is a closet Fascist. Juniper (Jack McGowran) behaves like a madman and impersonates officers. He's a gross liability yet is excused as a morale booster. Spool (Ronald Lacey of Zulu Dawn and Raiders of the Lost Ark) doesn't seem to understand where he is, and another Musketeer (Jack Hedley) keeps telling us exactly when he's going to be killed. Sgt. Transom (Lee Montague of Billy Budd) is the only real soldier in the bunch.
As soon as they arrive in North Africa, Lt.Goodbody volunteers for hazardous duty. His detail is sent 40 miles behind the enemy's lines to erect a Cricket Pitch (part of a Cricket field) so that the troops will have a cozy recreation center waiting for them when they push the Germans back.
The rest of the story is disorganized chaos -- silly slapstick and pratfalls, an abysmal attempt to attack a German-held oasis, nonsensical escapades of every kind. Juniper appears in ridiculous costumes and even in blackface. Most of the dialogue is shouted; the troops mock Lt. Goodbody at every opportunity. Treks across the sand in armored vehicles are accompanied by Maurice Jarre's theme from Lawrence of Arabia. One of the soldiers, for no reason at all, turns totally green; later on another Tommy turns red. They stay that way for the balance of the show.
Much of the action is given over to verbal comedy turns between the characters, silly-sod nonsense that can be very amusing... or just confusing if the point being made focuses on an obscure cultural target. Director Lester is very good when breaking the confines of the format. In the middle of the desert, a wife suddenly appears to comfort a dying soldier, but instead criticizes him. A German soldier guarding a bridge is told that he's dismissed from duty. He swaps his helmet for a bowler hat before exiting to rejoin his family, screen right. Characters talk about what will happen in the future, and what they'll have to say when they're asked, "What did you do in the war?"
Much of the humor disguises a bitter hatred directed at pompous, callous officers. Michael Hordern has altogether too many (well-delivered) speeches as the asinine, murderous Colonel Grapple, whose idea of motivating troops is to let a few die. We also get Robert Hardy as another useless commander. Alexander Knox's brief bit as an American general is a spectacular wrestling match with a Yankee accent.
This nonsense continues for almost two hours, establishing a peculiar voice but not a narrative shape. The cutaways to the "captured" Lt. Goodbody inquiring about German culpability for the murder of millions find an edge that much of the rest of the comedy lacks. His captor Odlebog (Karl Michael Vogler of Patton) seems sincere for a moment, as if he wants a pal in the enemy camp when the inevitable defeat comes. Odlebog also tries to "sell" the last bridge across the Rhine to the Allied forces. The German officer openly admits that the Holocaust is underway, but then says he knows little about it, and in any case, it doesn't make him feel sorry at all. The simple act of disassociation is suddenly very disturbing.
If there's a single reason why How I Won the War didn't catch fire as a comedy in the U.S., it's probably because John Lennon hasn't a lot to do. He's present almost all the time, and seems eager to please, but all the good gags go to practiced clowns like Roy Kinnear and scene-stealers like Jack McGowran. Lennon says his lines but doesn't seem all that essential. Also, How I Won the War is a bizarre comedy in a specific tradition and a "serious" war satire, not a fall-down laugh riot. And no Beatles music is used.
The MGM LImited Edition Collection's DVD of How I Won the War looks very good in an enhanced widescreen transfer. Cinematographer David Watkin (Catch-22) obtains many attractive images in the somewhat variety-challenged desert landscapes. The release is being treated as a special event video, with a 28-page color booklet of photos from the production. It's being sold at a higher price point exclusively through the Screen Archives Entertainment page. (The booklet did not come with the review screener).
The disc has no extras but includes a VERY WELCOME feature: optional English subtitles. With every one of these English actors mumbling in a different accent, saying words and phrases we never heard before, the subs are a solid plus. This viewer is very grateful.
The MGM Limited Edition's packaging defines the term Plain Wrap. The film is described in just two short sentences. One of them incorrectly states that this is John Lennon's first film performance.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
How I Won the War rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.