“Oh! What a Lovely War” is a different kind of war movie. It was released in England in 1969 and has an all-star cast of familiar British faces. It is based on a play and was directed by Richard Attenborough in daring style. It is without doubt the best war musical ever made, not that it has much competition. The script uses actual songs and quotes from World War I.
The film opens with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and we know this will be a different movie because it is depicted via a group photograph of the leaders of Europe. The photographer hands the royal couple red poppies and they fall dead. It is a not a good thing to get handed a poppy in this film. It helps to know the basics of the war, but the movie works hard as a tutorial. For instance, one scene has the world leaders discussing the run up to the war while standing on a map of Europe. Actual quotes are used very effectively and chillingly.
The movie uses a ballroom for the upper class and leader scenes, but the most important set is the Brighton West Pier which stands in for the home front and the jumping off point for the war. On the pier, Gen. Haig sells tickets to the war including to the five Smith brothers who we follow through the movie. The film jumps between these sets and the Western Front. It also jumps into songs – all of which are authentic to the period. The first is cavalry on a merry-go-round. The best is set in a music hall where beautiful girls sing patriotic songs encouraging young men to enlist. “We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.” Maggie Smith seals the deal by coming on and crooning sexily “take the king’s shilling and I’ll make a man out of you.” It turns out that sex sells war as well as tooth paste. By the way, when the new enlistees go up on stage they find out Maggie is not so beautiful and in fact is caked with make-up. Get it?
The movie is very harsh on the upper class. They are twits who are out of touch with reality. They watch fireworks and drink champagne and the movie transitions to the trenches. But it’s the brass that are damned and by their own words at that. When Haig discusses the Battle of the Somme, it is chilling. He watches the war through binoculars from the pier. A scoreboard tallies the casualties. The lower officers do not come off well either. They are callous and clueless. On the other hand, the Tommies (including the Smiths) are the heroes of the movie. They literally sing their way through the maelstrom of the war. Interestingly, several of their songs are depicted as they may actually have taken place (unlike when the leaders are singing).
The film is a series of vignettes. The ones with the soldiers are the best, the ones with the generals and upper class are the most incisive. The vignettes include the Christmas Truce which is nicely done. There is an extended religious scene which makes fun of the role of religion in condoning the war. It turns out that all the various religions blessed the killing. There is a powerful scene of anti-war activist Sylvia Parkhurst quoting George Bernard Shaw to a heckling crowd of naïvely patriotic civilians. The Americans arrive via the pier singing “Over There”. “And we won’t come back – we’ll be buried over there.” Guess how many of the Smith brothers survive the war.
The songs are wonderfully rendered and there are a lot of them. It’s like the greatest hits of WWI. The acting is good, especially John Mills as Haig. Laurence Olivier was nominated for a BAFTA for portraying Gen. French. In fact, the movie was nominated for six BAFTAs. It is a very British movie so it is not well known in America even though you would think it would have struck a chord with the anti-Vietnam War crowd. Most war movies are anti-war, but few are as anti-war as “Oh! What a Lovely War”. Kudos to Attenborough for going out on a limb to bring the play to the screen. He managed to recruit an outstanding cast. The sets are amazing. The use of the pier is genius. The scenes set on the Western Front are appropriately hellish. The movie concludes with an awesome tracking shot of a white cross laden cemetery. Attenborough had 16,000 crosses hammered into pre-dug holes for the shot.
I am a big fan of this movie. If you have seen a lot of war movies, you need to watch it because it is so different. If you don’t see a lot of war movies, watch it because it is not a typical war movie.
GRADE = A
the Christmas Truce