Paramount // 1969 // 144 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // November 20th, 2006
The ever-popular war game with songs, battles, and a few jokes
It's the first decade of the new century and, all throughout Europe, rumors of war are on the rise. Specifically, France and Germany appear to be at odds, and through a complicated set of treaties and promises, Britain and Austria are probable participants in any antagonistic engagement. Once the hostilities start, the English employ a near-suicide strategy in order to forward their position. Recklessly throwing bodies at the enemy and hoping that, by sheer will and number of men alone, they can win the day, the casualties to His Majesty's forces are staggering. Still, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (John Mills, Tunes of Glory) having replaced the aging Sir John French (Laurence Olivier, Hamlet), believes that this is the best plan of action.
In the meantime, five members of the Smith family end up on the front line, each one with a different division and a similar story to tell. It seems that while the enlisted men fight and die, the officers argue and complain over petty inconveniences. On the home front, sacrifice is seen by everyone -- except the rich, who tend to complain about the quality of champagne coming from war-torn vineyards. In stereotypical British style, the government puts on a baffling brave face. As almost 700,000 men meet their maker, the commanders pretend that the soldiers are shouting, "Oh! What a Lovely War," happy to be dying for King and Country. The truth, however, is far more frightening.
Do your remember that scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in which a British officer loses his leg to an elusive African tiger (I know...I know..."A tiger? In Africa?)? Anyway, do you recall how the upper-crust generals and majors acted all outraged and irritated over the whole "missing limb" issue while, in the background, the Zulus were slaughtering the stuffing out of their enlisted ranks? That sequence pretty much sums up the entire two-hour-and-thirty-minute running time of Richard Attenborough's ambitious adaptation of Joan Littlewood's infamous musical Oh! What a Lovely War. To say this film strives to be epic in scope and critical in nature is like suggesting that Saving Private Ryan was a "tad" bloody during its D-Day battle scenes. Using the unique approach of intermingling the actual words of the soldiers on the front with song selections appropriate -- and in some cases, purposefully created -- for the era, Littlewood wanted to stress the separation of classes and how such a callous approach to the barbaric nature of war led to the deaths of almost a million British boys. The juxtaposition is jarring at first; the realities of combat and life in the trenches placed up against the fantasy sequences where the major world players dine and dance like new-age Neroes. But once you get into the swing of things, Attenborough's approach becomes crystal clear.
Unfortunately, it's very one note and rote. The basic theme of Oh! What a Lovely War is that combat is hell and a mismanaged front led to Britain's mass slaughter at the hands of Germany. It's a solid message, and one illustrated quite well throughout the movie. But it's also the only point Attenborough wants to make. He does it from all angles -- at home, the minor amount of anti-war protest (featuring Vanessa Redgrave in a role one assumes she relished), the detached rich, the jaded general public, and the suffering soldiers in the field. The music -- an odd combination of marches, hymns, and traditional folk tunes -- adds a layer of commentary, suggesting that all was not quiet or content on the Western front. There's even the unusual conceit of making the entire war a seaside attraction with the Brighton Pier standing in for the European theater. Still, it's all in service of a single, staid objective. Since we are never really meant to connect with the characters (only the Smith family, and Haig stand out among the throng) and the narrative is as much a history lesson as human drama, we are given very little to latch onto. Instead, Oh! What a Lovely War appears to be a more reactive instead of interactive experience. An audience is simply supposed to sit back and absorb the constant onslaught of images and information.
It's that concept of connectivity, how you respond to the arch approach to this film that will accurately reflect your level of enjoyment. If you instantly take to the whole musical hall horror of the experience, if the contrasts between fey fantasy and stark realism have you recoiling in considered awe, then Oh! What a Lovely War will become a timeless favorite. You'll mention it in the same hushed tones as other anti-war satiric screeds like M*A*S*H and The Stunt Man. If, on the other hand, you'd prefer your irony on the slightly less "oh so subtle" British side, if you'd relish another scene as sensationally saucy as Maggie Smith's turn as a bawdy cabaret singer selling recruitment, if the lack of thespian bravura from such noted names as Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, and Dirk Bogarde really chafes your cinematic aesthetic, then you're going to have problems with this film. Oh! What a Lovely War is like a Broadway version of Ken Burns's The Civil War, except with actors actually recreating events, not just doing voiceover work. For many, that may seem like an invitation to something truly original and stunning. But the fact is, for all its innovation and integrity, Oh! What a Lovely War just can't manage to stay engaging. It stumbles more often than it sustains its ideas. Call it a noble failure or an uneven masterpiece, but it's a film that definitely deserves attention. How long it will maintain it is another issue all together.
Hats off to Paramount for its superb treatment of this long-lost gem. Attenborough wasn't out to make a driving narrative experience, but a piece of nostalgic revisionism, a take on the times in both authentic and arcane manners. This means his original vision fills up a very formidable 2.35:1 frame. Thankfully, the transfer here is terrific, the anamorphic widescreen image preserved in all its elegant, effective cinematography. Contrasts are crisp and color schemes, from muted to potently primary, are captured in all their pristine glory. Frankly, this film couldn't ask for a better digital revision. It adds an immense amount of visual power to the movie's more mundane elements. Sadly, the sound is Dolby Digital Mono, which means the numerous musical numbers are flat, dimensionless, and tinny. While it may be too much to ask for a multi-channel remix of the score, the songs are such a seminal part of the production that it seems such an update is warranted.
Thankfully, the former purveyor of bare-bones releases has changed its marketing mindset and given Oh! What a Lovely War an excellent set of bonus features. First up is a subdued yet informative commentary by director Attenborough himself. Sounding a little morose and very old, the still-knowledgeable filmmaker provides a wealth of information, back story, and subtext to the feature presentation, discussing everything from the changes made to the original show to how the British countryside was modified to stand in for the various battlefields in World War I. Though it's very dry at times, this is one artist who understands the nature of the medium. Attenborough wants to make his contextual contribution as meaningful as possible, and he does. Equally compelling are the three documentaries -- totaling nearly 90 minutes overall -- focusing on various elements of the production. Subtitled "Welcome to World War I," "The Smith Family Album," and "Keep the Home Fires Burning," there is a great deal of data disclosed about Oh! What a Lovely War. While many of the movie's participants are no longer with us, the stories shared by Attenborough and others keep their presence front and center. This makes for a wonderfully comprehensive set of extras.
While the critical community is almost universal in its praise for this title, it seems that time may be working against Oh! What a Lovely War's potential appreciation. As our own reality gets more and more cynical, thanks in part to our current status as a confused country in the midst of its own polarizing engagement, this movie may hit too close to home for some. Many will celebrate its brazen belittling of those who would mindlessly command others to die for an ill-defined goal. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth about Richard Attenborough's film debut. Oh! What a Lovely War is very good in small doses. In one big gulp, it's almost stifling.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Commentary by Lord Richard Attenborough
* Three-Part Documentary: "Welcome to World War I," "The Smith Family Album," and "Keep the Home Fires Burning"