OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR has so much going for it—ambition, scale, style, performance, relevance and heart—it’s a jot regrettable that excessive length weighs it down and partially blunts impact. Switching from acting to directing for the first time, Richard Attenborough pulled off a Herculean labor with a big, bold anti-war musical that richly deserves rediscovery. In 1969, after decent reviews, it barely rippled in the US, languishing at 49th place, a case of right movie, wrong time.*
Using the English seaside resort of Brighton and its famous pier as a suitably carnival stand-in for reality (carny show, carnage), the Smiths, a typical patriotic British family, send their men off to the trenches from 1914 to 1918. Interwoven with these average ‘Tommies’ are the venal, clueless rulers, diplomats and generals who blundered millions into the maw of World War One, and all concerned pass in a ridicule & regret review of dozens of songs from the era, with more-pointed lyrics transposed. A right jolly folly. Switching back & forth from the gay, shielded, oblivious doings at Home to the bleak, crushing landscape of The Front, Attenborough does a superb job wrangling a huge cast through the script adaptation by author Len Deighton.
“Grant us victory, O Lord, before the Americans get here.”
It runs 144 minutes, and would have played better dropping twenty: best watched spread over a few sittings, as each individual section is good: there’s just too much. Beautiful production detailing in the costumes and sets, and song selections–often with reworked lyrics–are corkers. Choice sequences abound, including a fine miniature version of the famous Christmas Truce in No-Man’s Land (see 2005’s great Joyeux Nöel), a bawdy come-on number from Maggie Smith (who knew?), classic upper-class twit balderdashing from John Mills, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave. An especially telling slice has Vanessa Redgrave in an impassioned bit as suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, pleading with a disbelieving, hostile crowd about the lies they are being fed from their leaders—it hits close to home in this obscene RealityTVLand of ‘alternative facts’ we now are bombarded with. The stunning final shot (involving 16,000 props) clinches it.
At the pier, on the boards and in the trenches are Jean Pierre Cassel, Ralph Richardson, Kenneth More, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Susannah York, Corin Redgrave, Wendy Allnutt, Dirk Bogarde, Gerald Sim, Phyllis Calvert, Vincent Ball, Edward Fox, Juliet Mills, Angus Lennie, Nanette Newman, Michael Bates, Christian Doermer, Cecil Parker.
* Though its 1963 genesis on the London stage predated the Vietnam War, by the time this came out that unpopular display of official idiocy/duplicity and military psychosis was in full metal bloom, as was the counter-culture. This backhand salute to insanity fit the mood of a year that produced Easy Rider, Z, Midnight Cowboy and The Wild Bunch, but not only was its war an oldie (and obviously more of a viable memory in Britain, where it came in at #16, still less than a smash), its form—the musical—was undergoing a trial by fire, and casualties were numerous and costly. The out-to-lunch Academy Awards saw fit to ignore this in every category and nominated the much less deserving bloat of Hello, Dolly! for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. I can’t find cost-figures for Attenborough’s production, but Dolly consumed a grossly wasteful $25,000,000 and nearly foundered Fox. Like generals fighting with outmoded tactics, the musical was blundering through the wire into a new, less forgiving era. Drawing crossfire either by critics or from customers were Paint Your Wagon (cost $20,000,000), Sweet Charity ($20,000,000) and Goodbye Mr. Chips ($9,000,000). I like Paint Your Wagon (most people I know do:critics hated it) but of the whole lot, the one most deserving of praise is the forgotten Oh! What A Lovely War. A salute to ‘Dickie’ Attenborough and his dedicated players. Lasting curses to the dimwitted butcher architects of The Great War. Eternal peace—‘Over There‘— to the ghosts of the Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli, Mons, Ypres, the Marne, Vimy Ridge, Tannenberg, Caporetto, Belleau Wood…..