Appellate Judge Tom Becker's trying to win the war on gingivitis.
If you think Richard Lester's How I Won the War is just another war film, forget it…
Focus on those last two words.
Richard Lester's How I Won the War isn't just another war film. It's an unfunny anti-war comedy, ill-conceived and poorly executed.
How I Won the War gives us the story of World War II British Lieutenant Ernest Goodbody (Michael Crawford, Hello, Dolly) as told by Lt. Goodbody ("Every word of this film is written in pencil, in my own handwriting," he announces). Goodbody is an earnest dunce leading a regiment through North Africa. Their mission: set up a cricket pitch in some far-away place. Goodbody and company bumble along, finding themselves in increasingly silly situations; however, the silliness is offset by sobering reminders of the horrors of war.
How I Won the War offers up the usual military-comedy tropes—inept squadron leader, quipping troops (they're British, so they don't exactly wisecrack), out-of-touch officers, silly things happening during battle sequences—and also ladles in serious and sobering moments. Many of the core characters die bloody deaths, and there are speeches about sadness and the absurdity of the whole thing. This should have come together like an earlier, British version of MASH.
Only it doesn't come together. Lester's frantic style, which worked so well in his Beatles movies, doesn't translate here. Part of the problem is pure logistics. Following the Beatles around in A Hard Day's Night is a lark. Following Goodbody and his men through North Africa is a slog. The story is told in a jumble of flashbacks, flashbacks within the flashbacks, asides, fourth-wall breaking commentary, and sight gags that sometimes work but too often don't. Much of the humor isn't just "very British," it's particular to the British military, so an awful lot is lost. The film ends up being less about the absurdity of war and more about the absurdity of Goodbody and his men—it's an anti-war film the way F-Troop was an anti-war TV show.
While Lester offers a few inventively manic set pieces and some amusing gags, the film is just too disjointed and hard to follow to have any impact. It's only compelling as curiosity. Crawford's stiff-upper shtick becomes tiresome early on, and the other characters aren't developed enough for us to care much about their fate, and not funny enough to put this over as a hip comedy.
One of Goodbody's men is the puckish Gripweed, who is played by none other than—the puckish John Lennon, in his only feature film appearance as a character not called "John Lennon."
Lennon's presence would likely have given the film a bit of celeb-cred and appealed to the "youth audience" Lester must have figured was already eager for his satirical anti-war screed. Unfortunately, Lennon's casting is to the detriment of the film, as the smug and smirking then-Beatle mugs along playing a boilerplate variation of himself. We never forget that it's Lennon onscreen, rather than an actor playing a soldier, and the effect is pretty much the same as when a "big star" does a turn on a TV sketch comedy. Your eyes stay on Lennon because he's Lennon, not because of anything particularly interesting that Gripweed is doing. Notable trivia: It was in this film that Lennon was first seen wearing his iconic round glasses.
To help bring home the point about the real-life horrors of war, Lester intercuts actual WWII newsreel footage during the battle sequences. The footage is tinted a particular color. Then, similarly tinted newsreel-looking footage with the actors is intercut into the scenes.
When characters die during these sequences, they "come back" and remain with Goodbody's platoon, only now they are the color of the tinted footage.
We get the point, and in a better film, it could have been an affecting statement; here, it just seems like one more confusing and intrusive burlesque. Frankly, the few seconds of snippets of real people fighting convey the message more effectively than Lester does in 111 minutes.
I believe this is part of MGM's DVD On Demand line. It's a decent-enough looking disc, with a reasonable transfer and acceptable mono audio track. The only supplement is a trailer. I understand there's also a commemorative photo book or something, but that didn't come with my review copy.
So silly it subverts its own premise, How I Won the War is less about the folly of war than about the folly of faux-hip filmmaking.
War is bad for children and other living things. How I Won the War is bad for everybody.
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