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The delightful Oh! What a Lovely War was obviously doomed to box office failure. Despite glowing reviews Paramount showed its lack of confidence with the same kinds of bookings it gave to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West ... practically none. I happened to catch it only because it played at a theater on an Air Force base, a venue that gave every release equal emphasis. Richard Attenborough's gargantuan musical is a pacifist labor of love and a clever transposition of a Music Hall revue into cinematic terms. Charles Chilton's radio original shared a brilliant idea with Joan Littlewood's stage adaptation: The popular songs associated with WWI were sung with the kind of lyrics made up by the soldiers themselves. In many cases the songs are actually improved by the irony and sarcasm. Jerome Kern's haunting melody They Wouldn't Believe Me is given the following lyric line:
Oh we'll never tell them / No we'll never tell them
We spent our pay in some café / And fought wild women night and day
T'was the cushiest job we ever had.
And when they ask us / And they're certainly going to ask us
The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre
Oh we'll never tell them / No we'll never tell them
There was a front / But damned if we knew where.
Oh! What a Lovely War encompasses at least 30 songs like this, all of them full of life and wit and heartbreak. The film adaptation by novelist Len Deighton (The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain) comes up with a brilliant and fitting gimmick to tie the tunes together: World War I is conceived as an Amusement Pier at Brighton, a get-dressed-up, flag-waving patriotic carnival. The entire story of the War to End All Wars is compressed into a heavily stylized pageant.
Oh! What a Lovely War's main weapon is heavy-duty irony. The farce of wartime euphoria contrasts obscenely with life and death in the trenches, and the constant flow of maimed young men returning to the pier from across the sea. The movie was Richard Attenborough's first job at directing; fittingly, his breakthrough acting role had been as a murderous spiv in a 1947 movie called Brighton Rock.
Oh! What a Lovely War is a lot of things. It's a snapshot of a relatively innocent England about to be disillusioned by the horrors of war. It's a record of the way things were -- styles, class attitudes and music. And every brightly lit image is a scream of protest against the unfathomable waste and destruction of war.
The movie is a surrealist musical fantasia. At the end of the fairly realistic pier is a dance palace where the aristocracy and military high command carry on their full-dress charade, a petty competition for status and promotions. One by one the Smith men slip into uniform and march (or take fun-ride cars) to the end of the pier, where they disappear into another dimension, to be magically transported to the front.
These supernatural transitions are film's main cinematic device. On a tower high above the pier arcades, the incompetent Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (John Mills) peers at the French coast through a spyglass. In the vast ballroom below is an obscene scoreboard with the name of a battlefield followed by the daily tallies: "60,000 soldiers killed today. Yards Gained, Zero."
The movie begins with a weird stylized pageant showing the assembled crowned heads and prime ministers of Europe on a giant chessboard-like map. Their words are all historic quotes; every country assures is neighbors of peaceful intentions while preparing for hostilities. A recurring emcee-like character (Joe Melia) produces a pair of red flowers for the Archduke and his wife to hold. Poof goes the photographer's flash, and they're dead. Senile Emperor Franz Josef is tricked into signing a declaration of war. The high nobility assure each other that the hostilities to come will in no way harm their continued personal affections.
Silenced by the overwhelming patriotic peer pressure, the Smith women have no reaction as their sons, husbands and sweethearts are brought on stage by Maggie Smith's teasing enlistment song, and immediately converted into soldiers. Meanwhile, the ancient, doddering high commanders use the troops as cannon fodder as they grouse about petty personal inconveniences. "We need only one more big offensive and the enemy will collapse," the generals keep repeating ... the 1915 version of "Peace with honor," and "Stay the course."
The Smith family (played by Wendy Alnutt, Colin Farrell, Malcolm McFee, John Rae, Corin Redgrave, Maurice Roëves, Paul Shelley, Kim Smith, Angela Thorne and Mary Wimbush) form the recurring backbone of the story. Jean-Pierre Cassel's jaunty French song depicts the destruction of fancy 19th century style cavalry in the new mechanized warfare. Most of the other songs are about the misery and dreams of the soldiers at the front. Some sound familiar and others are converted hymns or pop songs given a macabre twist: Hush! Here comes a whiz-bang ... and it's headed straight for you!". There's even an obscene drinking song or two in there. A group of Australians sings One Staff Officer Jumped Right Over Another Staff Officer's Back, lampooning the pompous officer corps that stays a safe distance from the front. At the opposite emotional pole, Silent Night sung in German is used for the historical Christmas Miracle, a true occurrence in which soldiers from both sides left their trenches for a few hours to fraternize in no man's land... until the high command threatened them with execution for treason.
In his commentary Attenborough says he first went to Laurence Olivier. Once that actor was on board for a minimal sum, practically the entire theatrical establishment turned out for a gloriously long list of cameos. In addition to those already mentioned, they include big stars Dirk Bogarde, Phyllis Calvert, John Clements, John Gielgud, Kenneth More, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Susannah York. The list of noted supporting players is even more fun, as many later became stars: Robert Flemyng, Ian Holm, David Lodge, Juliet Mills, Nanette Newman, Cecil Parker, Gerald Sim, Thorley Walters, Michael Bates, Edward Fox, Angus Lennie, Harry Locke and Norman Bird, Sheila Cox. Not easy to spot among the chorus girls are Carole Gray, Christine Noonan and Jane Seymour. Pippa Steel mans the grim scoreboard with the Death Statistics.
Many of the songs and situations are funny but Oh! What a Lovely War has a definite serious intent, especially when we realize that few of the Smith boys are coming home, from the young pups to the stuffy cousin Bert who became an officer. The film's symbolic code uses those red flowers as markers for death, and Attenborough finds heartbreaking ways to reveal them, making beautiful use of the era's shallow focus-rack focus photography style. Late in the film Vanessa Redgrave appears as a radical anti-war speechmaker. Her harangue against war profiteering and a government that doesn't care about killing an entire generation of men is angrily shouted down by citizens desperate to believe that their husbands and sons are fighting for something meaningful and are being well taken care of. Meanwhile, the Field Marshall prays that the war will be over before the Americans get involved. Think of the face he'll lose.
I'd like to recommend Oh! What a Lovely War to everyone, but that would be a disservice. It's definitely a strange movie idea, utilizing a group of catchy songs to support a subject most people will consider ancient history, even though most of the issues depicted are still with us. And one must pay attention to be moved by a devout hymn suddenly hijacked by a beautiful tenor voice: "When this lousy war is o-ver, no more soldiering for me ..." But the movie is both abstract and long. Two hours and 25 minutes is a lot to sit through, and even though many viewers will be delighted the movie would have been twice as manageable if it were two or three reels shorter. Attenborough's technique is inspired but the pace is on the slow side. I can easily imagine Paramount being scared off by preview walkouts.
That's a shame, as there's nothing more chilling than the film's final reel. The last soldier to die disappears behind the blur of a red flower. He emerges from a mist to follow a red ribbon leading from the trenches, through no-man's land, to the ballroom where the treaty is being signed. Across matched dissolves, he finally runs in shirtsleeves and bare feet on green grass, to sit down among a few of his friends, in a sunny place where he can relax. The Smith women are having a picnic a few yards away. His mother seems to sense his nearness.(spoiler)
The last shot is a jaw dropper on a big Panavision screen and will still be on any sizeable monitor. The soldiers are replaced by white crosses, and the camera pulls back to show the Smith women in their white Sunday dresses moving between the ranks of white grave markers. The camera keeps pulling back until the screen is filled with literally thousands of crosses that become white dots, with the women reduced to moving white dots moving through the pattern. It isn't CGI. The image is an almost cosmic expression of the numbing reality of millions of wasted lives.
Paramount's DVD of Oh! What a Lovely War is a beautiful enhanced transfer of this funny, poignant and certainly relevant show. English subtitles make it possible to understand all the lyrics in the strong mono track, a distinct advantage over the theatrical experience. 1
Sir Richard Attenborough offers a long and slow commentary but comes off effectively in a three-part docu on the making of the film. It's really a set of interviews with surviving cast members and a few crew people. Some of the reminiscences are interesting and others rather shallow, but the piece holds up well until the end, when the participants belatedly offer their personal anti-war sentiments. Since the film is already the ultimate statement on that theme, their comments are rather superfluous.
I don't know how many of my friends are going to appreciate it, but Oh! What a Lovely War is one of my favorite disc purchases this year.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Oh! What a Lovely War rates:
1. I must have played the soundtrack LP 500 times, and still didn't figure out all the words until seeing this disc.
2. Response from "B", 11.17.06:
3. Response from David Rutsala, 12.12.06:
It's a wonderful experience (I can't really call it anything else) which combines theatrical and cinematic devices to great effect. It's an unreserved pleasure to watch a film that forces you to make the connections, rather than relying on a "likeable view point character" to do all the heavy lifting.
I've read quite a bit about this period, but I think this film offers one of the best explanations of the battle of the Somme I've ever encountered. Both why the strategy was employed, and what a great failure it was.
And that last shot is a stunner. A shot which seems incomprehensible in such a relatively low budget production, and which (as you suggest) would most certainly be accomplished through CGI today. But is much more effective when one is armed with knowledge that it's real.
It's no surprise that this film launched Attenborough's career as a director. And despite his claims on the extras of his lack of interest in a directing career at the time, the film argues otherwise. It has all the hallmarks of someone behind the lens who'd been itching to direct for years.
You suggest that the film might have benefited from being shorter. I'm not so sure.The length of the production adds to the effect. It allows one to acclimate to its pleasures. And I doubt the final sections of the film would have been half as powerful had the film been a reel or two shorter.
And the greatest compliment to the film is that I found myself singing some of the songs this morning. I look forward to spinning this disc again. I'm sure that there was much I missed the first time.
Since you're a fan of this film, you might like to track down Richard Eyre's six-part documentary Changing Stages (2000) which charts the progress of theatre in the twentieth century. It has a long section on Joan Littlewood and her theatre company and offers some information on the original stage production of Oh! What a Lovely War. Littlewood was a unique figure in British theatre. Her company focused on developing plays through improvisational techniques which placed a great emphasis on the actor's contribution. This was at odds with the "text is king" approach of even the most revolutionary British theatre companies of the time. The theatre also got much mileage from being located in working class East London. A Taste of Honey is probably their most famous production, next to WAR. The documentary also discusses their friendly rivalry with the Royal Court Theatre (which staged John Osborne's plays) the period's more famous "avante garde" theatre.
Also I think of Savantish interest is the original driving force behind the production Charles Chilton. Chilton, an important radio figure, produced the landmark Science Fiction radio drama Journey into Space. Most sources claim that the first series was the last radio drama to beat television in the ratings. Pricey CD versions of this show exist and it's worth a listen to any fan of radio drama or post war British Science fiction.
One final question: Your review suggests that the songs' lyrics were written for the stage production, but the opening title cards seems to indicate that these were period songs. Rewriting lyrics to popular songs and hymns is not uncommon in England (or anywhere for that matter), especially among soldiers. I know some of the songs are period ("I Was Bombed Last Night" for instance), but others I'm not so sure about. Can you clarify this point for me? (The songs are all from the period, and I'm told that most of the lyrics are 'popular re-writes' from the period as well)
Thanks again for the recommendation. Apologies for the long email. As someone once said, I would have written a shorter one, but I didn't have the time. -- David
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