30 January 1999 | stryker-5
"Old Soldiers Never Die - The Young Ones Wish They Would!"
Richard Attenborough's directorial debut translates Joan Plowright's theatre concept onto celluloid. "Oh What A Lovely War" tells the story of World War One through the popular songs of the time, some of them sarcastically re-worded by the soldiers at the Front. Made in 1969, the film rides the wave of contemporary 'make love not war' sentiment, and uses humour and avant-garde zaniness to avoid seeming portentous. Brighton Pier represents the First World War, with the British public entering at the turnstiles, and General Haig selling tickets. The Smith family stands for the nation, and the film follows several young Smith men through their experiences in the trenches, most notably Freddy (Malcolm McFee), Harry (Colin Farrell) and George (Maurice Roeves).
The opening sequence, set in a wrought-iron Nowhere, tries to explain the diplomatic chicanery which (allegedly) caused the Great War. This passage is dull, unnatural, garbled and much too long. It does not harmonise with the rest of the story, and the film would have been better without it. Of the cavalcade of ageing English thespians which populates this sequence, only Jack Hawkins as the profoundly melancholic Austrian emperor is at all memorable.
1914 was the season of optimism, shown here by the cheerful seaside scene and the first Battle of Mons, both flooded in pleasant sunshine. When the casulaties start to mount, a shocked theatre audience is rallied by a rousing rendition of "Are We Downhearted? No!", a song which expresses something deep in the English psyche: "While we have Jack upon the sea/And Tommy on the land/We needn't fret".
The government's cynical drive to recruit a volunteer army by 'milking' the simple patriotism of the people is superbly satirised in the 'Roedean' section. Pretty girls onstage sing "We Don't Want To Lose You, But We Think You Ought To Go", and once the young men in the audience are suitably softened up, Maggie Smith lures them into taking the King's Shilling by enticing them sexually.
Class divisions are emphasised. Wounded men from the lower ranks have to wait for treatment, but officers have taxis laid on to take them to hospital. The War forces an aristocrat to converse with one of his retainers, but the conversation is hollow and awkward, as if the men speak different languages. The working-class men in the trenches fraternise with their German 'brothers', and a staff officer in the comfort and safety of England punishes them for their inappropriate behaviour. The pacifist who addresses the workers falls foul of their instinctive patriotism, and doesn't help herself by referring to her audience as "You misguided masses".
The film has many delicious ironic touches. A wounded man arrives back in England, relieved to be out of the hell of war, and is told by a nurse, "Don't worry - we'll soon have you back at the Front". Upper-class war dodgers carry on as before, but they think they are making noble sacrifices - "I'm not using my German wine - not while the War's on". The staff officer who visits the Front is patently unfamiliar with life there, and desperate to get away, but happy enough to have the men live (and die) in these conditions.
By 1915, the optimism has died. The parade of wounded men is a sea of grim, hopeless faces. Black humour has now replaced the enthusiasm of the early days. "There's A Long, Long Trail A-Winding" captures the new mood of despair, and the scene with the tommies filing along in torrential rain is powerfully evocative. Poppies provide the only colour.
We see English soldiers drinking in an estaminet. The chanteuse (Pia Colombo) leads them in a jolly chorus of "The Moon Shines Bright On Charlie Chaplin", a reworking of an American song, then shifts the mood dramatically by singing "Adieu la vie", a truly great tragic song.
The Australian troops have an easy, informal approach to discipline. They make fun of the 'proper' English reserves who are replacing them on the battlefield, and the contrast between the two cultures is depicted by the stiffness of the English drill compared with the sprawling comfort of the Aussies. Naturally enough, the Australians deride the staff officers who arrive to inspect the reserves.
Another passage in the film which simply doesn't work is the religious service in the ruined abbey. Its purpose is to point out the hypocrisy of the great religions, which all came out in favour of the War, but the scene drags horribly and slackens the film's otherwise brisk pace.
1916 passes, and the film's tone darkens appreciably. Now the songs have a wistful quality, laced with the chirpy stoicism of the British soldier - "The Bells Of Hell", "If The Sergeant Steals Your Rum, Never Mind" and "Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire". The trench scenes are terrific, powerfully evoking the squalour of the Front. The wounded are laid out in ranks at the field station, a mockery of the healthy rows of young men who entered the War. Harry Smith's silently-suffering face is one of the film's great images.
The War is drawing to its close, but still the ironies are piling up. The Americans arrive, singing (in travesty of Cohan) "And we won't come back - we'll be buried over there!" Freddy notices with disgust that after three years of this nightmare, he is literally back where he started, fighting at Mons.
As the Armistice is sounding, Freddy is the last one to die. The film closes with a truly stunning aerial view of soldiers' graves, dizzying in their geometry and scale, as the voices of the dead sing, "We'll Never Tell Them". It brought a tear to this reviewer's eye.