Richard Attenborough directs this farcical yet horrifying send-up of the grueling First World War, based on an absurdist stage musical written by Joan Littlewood.
On August 4, 1914, Germany declared war on and subsequently invaded Belgium, a declared neutral in the escalating conflict between France, Russia, and the allied countries of German and Austria-Hungary. Europe at the time had been spoiling for a war, and the Byzantine tangle of pacts, treaties, and agreements ensured that it was only a question of when, not if, the entire continent would find an excuse to kit up and march off to battle. That excuse came in June of 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian radicals. And so the dominoes fell. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia was allied with Russia, who had no choice but to declare war on Austria-Hungary. Germany was allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so declared war on Russia. France, which had treaties with Russia, thought about staying neutral in the matter, but that became a moot point when Germany declared war on them, launching an offensive that bulldozed its way through Belgium en route to France and brought the United Kingdom into the war as a result of a pact Britain had with Belgium
Or, that is, something very much like that. It was a mess, but it was a mess most of Europe assumed would be cleared up after a few months of squabbling and a few battles. Everyone would be home in time for Christmas, it was assumed. The German offensive, however, bogged down. On August 22, The Battle of the Frontiers saw some 27,000 French soldiers die on a single day of combat. Less than a month later, at the First Battle of the Marne, the German advance toward Paris was halted. In a week of fighting, nearly 82,000 men were killed. On September 15, a few days after the end of the First Battle of the Marne, soldiers faced with new battlefield technology that was tearing them to shreds did the only thing they could do to survive: they dug. These were the first trenches of the Great War, the muddy, infested ditches both sides would call home for the next four years.
Those of us who have an obsession with the First World War have come to it for many reasons, though I think many of us share certain aspects when it comes to finding the war both fascinating and revolting. I wouldn’t exactly call it the first “modern” war or the first “total” war (one that is fought not on battlefields between armies, but on battlefields, in towns and cities, and where civilians and civilian targets are as legitimate as military ones); I think the claim to that lies with the American Civil War, at least in some prototypical nature. But the sheer scale of misery in World War One, the truly incomprehensible scale of death — 16 million killed between July of 1914 and November of 1918 — and the way it completely reshaped the world while, at the same time, accomplishing nothing but becoming the prelude to an even bigger, bloodier, and more horrific war two decades later (60 million people were killed during World War II) make it one of the most tragic and strangest conflicts in human history. It is a monument to human folly, to human degradation, to human spirit, to human perseverance.
And it was all intensely, profoundly absurd.
That absurdity was illustrated on the stage some decades later, when playwright Joan Littlewood mounted the first production of Oh, What a Lovely War! in 1963. The play was inspired when one of Littlewood’s partners in the theatrical ensemble, Gerry Raffles, heard a radio program that combined the war’s appalling casualty statistics with reminiscences of the war’s veterans and the popular wartime songs of the era. Many of the most popular songs of the Great War were written not to get the patriotic juices on the home front flowing (though there were tons of those), but were instead tongue-in-cheek, satirical, and downright cynical songs based on the reality of trench warfare on the Western Front. Songs like “Goodbye-ee” and the song from which Littlewood’s play took its name, “Oh, It’s a Lovely War” juxtaposed patriotic fervor with military incompetence, suffering, tedium, and the fact that a lot of soldiers had the wool pulled over their eyes. Many other songs, the more patriotic ones, had been rewritten by British “Tommies” in the trenches, with new lyrics a little more reflective of the grim — but sometimes perversely comical — conditions in the trenches. They were readymade to be used in a satirical play.
Raffles pitched the idea to Littlewood, who was revolted. She despised war and depictions of war. Raffles persisted though, bringing in Charles Chilton, who had created the original radio broadcast, to play the songs. Littlewood was slowly won over by the idea, though she flatly refused to put her cast in military uniforms, opting instead to highlight the absurd vulgarity of war by placing the armies in Commedia dell’arte style pierrot costumes — but with the iconic tin helmets of the war. Audience reaction tot he eventual finished play was enthusiastic, though press response was mixed. The family of field Marshall Haig, commander of the British forces during the War, seemed particularly unenthused. But once the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret, gave her seal of approval, the play’s future in the West End — the London equivalent of Broadway, was assured.
Six years later, the world was engulfed in another type of war. Though the United Kingdom steadfastly refused to be drawn into the French — and then American — war in Vietnam, the social upheaval that came as a result of that conflict touched most of the world. By 1969, the counter-culture movement and anti-war protests came to a head. In the midst of this social and political maelstrom, British actor Richard Attenborough (who worked with director Basil Dearden in two fantastic films, The League of Gentlemen and All Night Long long before he resurrected dinosaurs to trouble Jeff Goldblum) directed his first film, a sprawling epic adaptation of Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War!
Attenborough’s film differed from Littlewood’s play in a number of notable ways — so much so that the playwright considered the film a complete ruin of her work. Firstly, it used historically accurate costumes and military uniforms. Secondly, where the play had been an absurdist comedy played out on top of harrowing statistics and battlefield photographs, the movie realistically depicted things like trench warfare and poison gas. And there is death, lots and lots of death. In the play, no one died. Littlefield wanted people to laugh at the pointlessness of war, wanted to highlight that head-shaking absurdity rather than explicitly depicting it. She was horrified when she saw that the cinematic adaptation of her play was positively caked in the filth and blood of the First World War.
I don’t necessarily agree with her point of view, though I understand it. Her play made a valid point in a valid way, but so does the movie. i understand, as a writer, the attachment Littlewood had not just to the content of the play, but tot he way in which that content was communicated, and were I her, I likely would have been similarly aghast that my intentions were so radically altered. On the other hand, I’m not her and I’ve never seen the play. I have, however, seen Attenborough’s movie, and I find it to be an absurdist masterpiece and an incredibly effective anti-war war movie that accomplishes the same goals as Littlewood originally had, even if she didn’t approve of the way it went about it.
The film is a very loosely plotted series of scenarios and vignettes revolving around the members of the typically British Smith family during the war. But that is very loose indeed, with the film skipping around from person to person, event to event, so that at times it becomes almost impossible to remember who is who. Punctuating it all — in a carry-over from the stage play (and the radio production, for that matter) are the generals in a large room with casualties and deaths of each battle posted on a scoreboard. Some of the film is purposefully abstract. Most of the dialogue is communicated through song, primarily the same soldier-altered versions of popular songs from the era of the war, though some were, as I wrote, already satirical enough that they didn’t need to be changed. This is hardly a conventional musical, however. Field Marshal Haig and his staff keep track of the battle from atop a gymorbee style structure on the beach, exiting it via a slide. Troop inspections will suddenly devolve into a game of leapfrog.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is its own sort of absurdity, one that earned its own movie (2005’s Joyeux Noel).
These moments of ridiculous comedy only serve to underscore the horror — most of which is presented in a similarly comedic (if harrowing) fashion. Trainloads of wounded soldiers returning to London and unable to get a bus to the hospital. British troops pinned down in an artillery crater during an offensive, irritated that every runner they send over the top is immediately shot. Quaint British seaside vacation spots suddenly become part of No Man’s Land. Patriotic citizens harassing peace protesters in a scene that could be a witch trial. The upperclass — the best and brightest — of British society anxious to rush off to war (probably the last time a substantial portion of the military was comprised of the upper classes). While there may be no traditional narrative structure to the film, the theme binds each of these episodic looks at life during and in the war together into a cohesive whole I could have quietly sat and watched all day.
And then come the final ten minutes of the film, as emotionally gutting a sequence as has ever been committed to film (some poor sod has to be the last man killed, after all), and a beautiful, heart-wrenching illustration of the cost of the Great War, and of war in general. I bet I’ve sat and watched that final scene a hundred times, and it remains still one of the only scenes in any film that can choke me up.
It’s brutal, funny, sad, and experimental film from an unexpected source. When one things counter-culture radical, one doesn’t think Richard Attenborough. but then, the Vietnam era made for strange rebels. For his first time behind the camera, Attenborough is surprisingly accomplished, capturing both the epic scale of the war as well as its more intimate moments. The script, by Len Deighton (best known as the author of The IPCRESS File and its sequels, which birthed the “Harry Palmer” movies starring Michael Caine), manages to invest the viewer emotionally even when one is having trouble keeping track of the many characters who drift in and out of the film with little or no introduction. Although poor Joan Littlewood was revolted by the amount of death and violence, I find it an exceptionally powerful way to make the film’s point, and at no point does it feel like the sort of gratuitous “war porn” that can mar even the most earnest of anti-war films.
The film was a hit, and Attenborough would go on to substantial success as a director. In 1977, he directed my favorite World War II film, A Bridge Too Far. In 1983, he won the Oscar for best film and best director for Gandhi. Quite a body of confrontational work for a mild-mannered, quintessentially British actor turned director. It’s likely he picked up some of that rebellious streak during his time working with Basil Dearden, a director who made deceptively subversive “mainstream” British films that forced issues of race and homophobia onto screens at a time when very few directors were willing to tackle such subjects. This directorial debut may be a bit on the nose, but I never minded a message delivered bluntly if it was also delivered earnestly, and this is certainly a film that wears its heart on its muddy khaki sleeve. It’s a very human look at a very inhuman war.
Oh, What a Lovely War is a landmark of British filmmaking, and of war films, although it seems — much like World War I itself — to be largely forgotten these days. I’m writing this review on the centennial of Britain declaring war on Germany in 1914, at a time when the state of the world is looking increasingly shaky. World War I, or World War II, seemed for so long to be the sort of thing that just couldn’t happen again. While I am optimistic about our chances of not plunging the world into another such conflict, I’m less sure than I was ten or fifteen years ago. The centennial of the Great War might serve to remind us of such folly. But then, it didn’t keep us from World War II, and that was just twenty years later. Whatever the case, Oh, What a Lovely War is a film that definitely deserves to be rediscovered (the play itself is even enjoying a revival). It’s musical nature, as well as its disjointed style of storytelling and forays into surreal absurdity, make it a more difficult film to digest than a more straight-forward narrative approach. But it’s worth the effort, if it takes an effort.