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Oh! What a Lovely War

****
1969

‘…It’s fast, often funny and always entertaining as a musical, and as a record of the thoughts of the many who sacrificed their lives for the cause, it’s still one of the greatest anti-war films ever…’

With great power, comes great opportunity, and posting on Rotten Tomatoes the other day, I noticed that Richard Attenborough’s 1969 musical only had a measley 14 critical reviews, which for an all-star, culturally important film, is something of a shocker in trems of neglecting a classic. I had this soundtrack on vinyl when I was a kid and played it constantly, and re-watching it the other night, I realised that I knew pretty much every word. That’s fairly unusual for any child, being word-perfect on a musical filmed long before I was even born, but then again, Oh! What A Lovely War really isn’t your typical musical.

This film is based on a stage-musical, based on a play by Joan Littlewood and in turn inspired by a radio play The Long Long Trail by Charles Chilton; it’s something of an oral history of WWI as seen from the POV of the soldiers who fought in the conflict. That’s a fairly modern concept, but an important one; history, they say, is written by the victors, but there were few winners fighting in the trenches during WWI; ‘This is not war, this is slaughter’ says Edward Fox’s character, and he’s right. A top actor for decades before turning director, Richard Attenborough pulled in a remarkable roster of his fellow actors to create this huge diorama of military hubris, and the results still sparkle today.

At times, this is a record of a stage show; theatrically, an end-of-the pier proscenium was created, with gantries and a scoreboard on which the number of troops lost are displayed like a cricket score. Children watch clips of the wars through Kinograph machines, and uniforms and boots are doled out to green new recruits as prizes won in shooting galleries. Attenborough imports these theatrical conceits verbatim, but leans into cinematic style once the civilians are pulled onto the pier stage and kitted out for battle. The war scenes are tough and realistic; the difference between war seen from home comforts and war experienced in reality are presented as two very different things. And we start with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife; they each get handed a red poppy to signify their death, and the number of poppies piles up as the death toll becomes more and more obscene.

There’s no one central character here; it’s the story of the soldier, and given that the irreverent songs they sang to traditional songs were often satirical, it’s a vital record of how they felt about the war itself. Popular British songs like ‘I Do Like To Be Beside the Sea Side’ reflect the innocence of the public before the war began, while songs like Goodbye are re-contextualised as papering over the real thoughts of the troops; ‘pathetic words’ is the verdict offered up here. But Attenborough was on his way to mastering his craft as director, and he is able to create shocking and memorable moments like an affectionate Chaplin homage, an intensely moving tracking shot that follows a loose horse from the battlefield as it rages through the countryside, or a famous, sobering helicopter shot that ends the film, pulling back from a field of tens of thousands of white crosses.

The cast remains a draw; Attenborough would work again with Fox, Laurence Olivier and Dirk Bogarde on his more conventional war movie A Bridge Too Far, but there’s also notable turns from Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, John Gielgud, and especially Joe Melia as the singing narrator. But Oh! What A Lovely War is more than the sum of its parts; this is a film that favours a forced, jocular approach to history, and deliberately makes light of the imminent death that awaits most of the characters. It’s fast, often funny and always entertaining as a musical, and as a record of the thoughts of the many who sacrificed their lives for the cause, it’s still one of the greatest anti-war films ever.

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  1. I’m with you 100% on this. I saw this on release at the ABC Fulham Road, I think – certainly a big cinema before tripling or quintupling – and thoroughly enjoyed it as well as having all my prejudices conformed. Like you I also had access to the vinyl LP and learned many of the songs, some of which I still sing to myself. This is possibly the only one of Dickie’s films as a director that I really rate, but it rates very high. The ideology was bang-on for us in 1969 but these days I think the right is trying to re-write history and claim that the Generals actually knew what they were doing. Time for a revival!

    • Time for a revival indeed! I guess it says something for today’s critics that there’s barely a dozen reviews on RT. This is a great film, unduly neglected, and I know Attenborough was very proud of it. As you say, the ideology is super sharp, and we really need reminded of this today. Digital history is subject to instant and unauthorised revision; this is a primary source, and should be easy for anyone to see…still looks amazing must have been great at the time!

  2. As a side note, when you visit the U.S. military cemetery Arlington, they give you a little paper poppy to wear on your lapel. It’s really a moving tribute to those who lost their lives in WWI.

  3. I might watch this. The contrast in the way WWI and WWII is portrayed and covered in film/books is fascinating to me and somewhat understandable. So many anti-war movies about WWI and Vietnam but really none about WWII.

    I’m not saying that the world shouldn’t have stopped Hitler and Japan, of course. I guess it’s because it’s easier to explain in two sentences why it was fought.

    • The anti-war films of the Second World War began to appear in the 1960s. One of the best was Carl Foreman’s The Victors (1963). I’d also suggest Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965) though it isn’t directly about the war, more about the British Army. It’s a great film. There are several others including comedies. Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1973) is excellent and offers the German perspective.

  4. It used to be that war was a big fat check on population. But it seems that either more people were killed in earlier wars than historians tell us (those liars!) or that we have passed a point where even millions dying in just a decade isn’t enough. We seem to be at the point where even if half the world bought the farm, we’d still have more people than they had in 1916.

    and I vote for the Laughing Policeman too. Jollity is needed…

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