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Movies Oh What a Lovely WarWhen Richard Attenborough’s movie, Oh What A Lovely War! appeared in October, 1969 I didn’t see it.  Regardless of his fame and that of the actors — John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave among many — the thought of a musical about war, in 1969, made me nauseous or furious depending on the news of the hour.  A second year of Tet fighting had happened in February.  U.S. bombers were pounding Cambodia.  Over 10,000 more GIs had been killed; Vietnamese fatalities were enormous. The Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism in May was Eddie Adams “Saigon Execution.”

Saigon Execution by Eddie Adams, Feb 1968

Saigon Execution by Eddie Adams, Feb 1968

It turns out, in this hundredth anniversary year of WW I, that Oh What A Lovely War! is a film well worth seeing.  For those reading or re-reading histories of the war, as I have been, many names and events, caricatured as they are, will be familiar.  There is Lord Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary of England, issuing his immortal words, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.  We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”  There is Czar Nicholas II of Russia and there his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, there President Poincare of France and there Generals von Moltke and Haig — all introduced in a brilliant piece of stagecraft, dressed in high regalia and being moved about a beach resort ballroom in chill winter.

A photographer appears, sets them up for a formal photo, hands the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenburg, crimson red poppies.  The flash goes off.  They fall dead and the war begins.

Using the actual Brighton West Pier in England as the set, and as comment on the events, holiday crowds surge in enthusiasm for the war.  Tickets are sold by General Haig, not only to young men, but women anxious to “do their bit,” and in fact to the entire Smith Family who appear throughout.  The first engagement of the British in the war, the Battle of Mons, is happily portrayed. The lights are still up, the mood still merry.

Soon it turns grim, however.  The casualties mount.  Spirit is rallied with actual songs of the time beginning with “Are We Downhearted? No!” Maggie Smith appears leading a chorus line of lovelies promising those men in the audience who sign up — accept the King’s shilling– she “will make a man out of you.” As soon as they clamber up on stage they are mustered by a tough shouting sergeant.

There is a great scene with Vanessa Redgrave as Sylvia Pankhurst (the only one of her famous suffragette family to oppose the war) rousing the crowds to stay away from the recruiters, to boos and jeers.  Fine cutting between men at the front and the General Staff in spiff surroundings on the West End Pier make the well known point about the different experiences of the men and the brass with a broad wink.

What is fascinating is how so many of the songs written and sung by civilians and soldiers alike during the war are such an ironic commentary on the events for which they were supposed to be morale raisers.  And not only now, in retrospect, but during the war itself, as Paul Fussell has pointed out in his 1975 The Great War and Modern Memory.  “Pack up your old kit bag, and smile, smile smile,” sung during a slogging march through the rain could not be more pointed, or anti-war subversive.

The titles alone paint a picture: “Gassed Last Night,” “Hush Here Comes a Whizz Bang,” “When This Lousy War is Over,” and the wonderfully lilting “Good-byee” to send bright and shining new soldiers off to the meat grinder of the Western Front.

Though Joan Littlewood, the dramatist who picked up the original radio play and staged it in 1963 as a stage musical didn’t like the transformation to screen — she refused to have khaki on her stage and dressed everyone in Poirot costumes– not many others will be put off by the Attenborough version.

A must view for fans of musical comedies or innovative theater, anti-warriors and appreciators of great actors stepping out of their gravitas to give us something with a laugh, a song and a much needed attitude adjustment.