The film, a thoroughly enjoyable ‘odd duck’, with a typical quasi-political artistic stance on the follies of war. Highly entertaining and, at times, touching.
WHEN Joan Littlewood’s London improvisation, “Oh! What a Lovely War,” opened on Broadway five years ago, it had a cast of 18 men and women dressed as Pierrots and Columbines. In the pit was an orchestra that managed to recreate the nostalgic musical sounds of World War I and to comment on them—sometimes simultaneously.
The show itself, described as “a musical entertainment,” was a jolly satire on the madness of the First World War, done mostly in period songs and sketches in which the Pierrots and Columbines slipped in and out of almost invisible disguises as emperors, generals, nurses, music hall stars, Tommies, wives, nurses and spectators, some appalled, some bored.
It was the sort of highly stylized theatrical presentation for which, I believe, there is no comfortable screen equivalent, unless you photograph it more or less as it is, as you might for television.
Richard Attenborough, the British actor and producer who makes his directorial debut with this movie adaptation, has gone in essentially the opposite direction. He has chosen to make a big, elaborate, sometimes realistic film whose elephantine physical proportions and often brilliant all-star cast simply overwhelm the material with a surfeit of good intentions.
“Oh! What a Lovely War,” which opens today at the Paris Theater, was shown twice last night at Alice Tully Hall as the concluding presentation of the seventh New York Film Festival.
Most of the show’s original material seems to be in the film, but it has all been so enlarged, stretched-out and over-orchestrated (both musically and pictorially) that the ultimate effect is dramatically anesthetizing. Attenborough attempts to bridge the gulf between spare, stage fantasy and movie realism by opening the film in what looks to be the ballroom of a lovely, skeletal cloud palace where Europe’s crowned heads and their chief advisers have gathered on the eve of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
They make small talk, gossip, proclaim their peaceful intentions and prepare, as the film’s recurring master of ceremonies (Joe Melia) tells us, for the “ever popular war games—songs, battles and a few jokes.” With the outbreak of war, the cameras glide into a realistic British seaside resort and a glistening, white amusement pier, a gingerbread delight, where Englishmen and their families line up to receive their tickets to World War I, which is spelled out in light bulbs over the entrance.
Thereafter, “Oh! What a Lovely War” cuts back and forth these symbolic settings, which always represent the environment of fantasy (staff officers headquarters, recruiting centers, English country houses), and very real locations, such as battlefields and field hospitals, which are usually the settings for the recognition of despair.
Some of the sketches, vignettes and songs are absolutely superb, especially early in the film before a certain monotony sets in. Chief among these is a music hall number in which Maggie Smith minces to center stage and sings a raucous, deliberately naughty recruiting song, “I’ll Make a Man of You.” In this short interlude, the film achieves the precarious balance it seeks between satire, nostalgia and ghastly humor. As the men scramble to the stage to enlist, there is a quick close-up of Miss Smith, who has suddenly turned into the War Whore — her eye shadow grotesque, the skin across her face as taut and hard as pink leather.
Also fine are a blackout sketch featuring Dirk Bogarde and Suzannah York, a couple of bored British aristocrats who discuss the hardships on the homefront, and the vignettes that thread throughout with Laurence Olivier, John Mills and Michael Redgrave as staff officers who might have been conceived by Punch, but whose lines are often recorded history.
The movie also achieves a moment of real sentiment as it recounts the famous Christmas Day truce when British and German soldiers threw down their guns to exchange schnapps and cigarettes in the no-man’s land between their trenches. But this sequence is eventually overdone, sunk by the movie’s realism, which also diminishes the effect of the sad, lovely, nostalgic songs.
There are dozens of songs in the film—patriotic things like “Belguim Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser,” sentimental ones like “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and marvelous parody lyrics to hymns like “The Church’s One Foundation.” However, if they are not over-orchestrated, they are over-sung by a huge men’s chorus to the point where they all sound alike.
Some people may seek parallels between the events satirized in the film and more contemporary confrontations. “Oh! What a Lovely War” is a musical entertainment that has grown too big for its puttees, but its point of view remains focused on a dim, far-off era that now seems almost as remote as the time of the Wars of the Roses.
Language(s):English + Commentary
Subtitles:English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish (idx)