Hey, look! It's a big picture of John Lennon, late musical genius and one of the 20th century's most recognizable faces! He's in Richard Lester's How I Won the War (1967) for all of 15 minutes...but give him second billing and slap his bespectacled mug on the poster and suddenly this misfired satirical romp is a buried treasure. The real leading man is Michael Crawford---the "I" in How I Won the War---as Lieutenant Goodbody, a bumbling soldier who willfully leads his unit (which also includes Lee Montague as Sergeant Transom, Roy Kinnear as Clapper, Jack MacGowran as Juniper, and Lennon as Gripweed) into gradual doom throughout Africa and Europe. Hilarity does not ensue.
How I Won the War wants to be a patchwork quilt but starts to show its seams well before the 30-minute mark. To its credit, there's a lot going on here: some well-placed jabs at a burgeoning Vietnam War, the clever (if not slightly distasteful) tactic of mixing tinted location shots with real combat footage, constant destruction of the fourth wall, and a wild sense of independence whether or not we're along for the ride. I can definitely respect that kind of bravery...but with How I Won the War, it's a shame that the reins weren't pulled in a lot more along the way.
Basically, what amounts to a handful of clever one-liners, sight gags, and interesting tricks is buried under at least 90 minutes of nonsense, making the film's total running time of nearly two hours feel twice that long. On the whole, How I Won the War feels like little more than a wasted opportunity of good talent, with only a decent leading performance by Michael Crawford to show for it. Everyone (and everything) else is sloppily thrown together, lost in translation, or never fully formed to begin with, making one wonder if Lester's production has just aged poorly or was always this undercooked. During production in Spain, Ringo Starr visited John Lennon to alleviate some of his boredom. Consider watching How I Won the War with a close friend for the same reason...or better yet, don't.
Simply put, the only reason How I Won the War is even faintly remembered is because of Lennon's scant presence, which offers little more than a few stray lines that sound more like interview answers than an actual performance (it's his only non-Beatle role in a feature film, by the way). It's also the only reason why it's been released on digital home video three times so far: the first was a now out-of-print 2001 MGM DVD, with an anamorphic Limited Edition DVD from the studio ten years later. Now Kino has released the film on Blu-ray...but even if you're a fan, don't get too excited: aside from a slight A/V bump, there's nothing new here (and in some respects, even less).
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, How I Won the War doesn't look all that impressive in high definition. Don't get me wrong: many portions of this film (which was largely shot outdoors under natural light) look just fine with decent image detail, modest background depth, and a nice layer of film grain. But the noticeable print damage and lack of strong texture leads me to believe that this is identical (or at least similar) to the source material used for MGM's Limited Edition DVD...although if you have the earlier (non-anamorphic) disc, I'd this represents a larger improvement. Either way, the courtesy bump to 1080p obviously yields a few basic improvements...but without any benefits from a full restoration, the end result doesn't necessarily make Kino's Blu-ray worth the upgrade.
NOTE: The promotional images featured on this page are strictly decorative and do not represent the title under review.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix splits How I Won the War's original one-channel audio into a 2.0 spread with relatively clear dialogue* and sound effects. Ken Thorne's original score occasionally overpowers everything else, but this doesn't distract for very long. No major defects were detected along the way, aside from a few stray volume, sync, and sibilance issues that are likely due to the original source material and not Kino's Blu-ray.
* A major problem with this disc (and quite honestly, a deal-breaker) is the total lack of optional English subtitles, which were available on both previous DVDs. This is unacceptable for almost any big studio release, but even more so when the film's thick accents and jargon are taken into account. First-time viewers will routinely find themselves lost or frustrated, as its rapid-fire dialogue will routinely go over the head of all but the most seasoned dialect interpreters. This lack of subtitles makes MGM's Limited Edition DVD a better option, in all honesty.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The basic interface includes separate options for playback, chapter selection, and bonus features, with quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes poster-themed artwork; no inserts or slipcovers are included, but everything is listed on the back.
Not much of interest here, aside from a handful of Trailers
. These include one for the main feature, two entries in the enjoyable Trailers from Hell
series (including The Knack... and How to Get It
and The Bed Sitting Room
), plus a handful of other Richard Lester films. I can't say I was ready to sit through any "real" bonus features at this point anyway, but a third-party interview or audio commentary might have swayed my overall opinion of the film a little.
How I Won the War is a missed opportunity from one of film history's most exciting eras. It's the product of wasted source material, a director and cast who have done much better work, and will have first-time viewers checking their watches long before the credits roll (if they even make it that far). Bottom line: masochistic fans of John Lennon are better off listening to Revolution 9 instead. Kino's Blu-ray makes a bad movie worse by not bothering with optional subtitles, ensuring the film's occasional attempts at humor are almost completely lost in translation; at the very most, it offers a modest A/V upgrade from MGM's previous DVD editions. Skip It, unless you're a die-hard fan.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.