Friday, 6 November 2015

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

"The lights are going out all over Europe..."

The cast for this film is ridiculous. Aside from the people I've tagged at the bottom we have the Master himself, Anthony Ainley, as a British staff officer. We also have Thorley Walters, Nanette Newman, Gerald Sim, Edward Fox, Angus Lennie, Dirk Bogarde, Derek Newark, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Susannah York, John Mills and (uncredited) Jane Seymour and John Woodnutt. All in the same film. It's absurd.

This is Dickie Attenborough's epic film version of the famously improvised musical by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop. It's a thing of magnificence but it does, of course, present a very Marxist view of the First World War. You certainly don't have to be a Marxist to subscribe to the view that this was not a "just" war but just a silly dynastic struggle between old empires, the War of the Spanish Succession with trench warfare and mustard gas; I'm not, and I do. But it certainly helps. However, this film is a strong proponent of the old "lions led by donkeys" view, an unpopular view in many quarters these days. From the arrogant xenophobia of the British officers towards their French allies to a doddering and uncomprehending Franz Ferdinand declaring war on Serbia this is not a flattering portrait of those in power.

Thing is, though, it's magnificent. As a musical (all the songs are versions from the trenches) it revels in the freedom from realism while maintaining a clever structure through the use of one family's ground level point of view and of the sinister photographer figure.

There are so many fantastic set pieces, from the British recruitment propaganda to the moving Christmas fraternisation between the British and Germans in 1914 (the top brass cancel their leave!) .But the structure, message and intricacy of the whole thing is quite something to behold. A thing of magnificence.

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