Oh! What a Lovely War
Special Edition, Collector's Edition
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It was the War to end all wars well not quite. For with the ricochet of one bullet, the entire course of human history was changed forever...Now, for the first time, Academy Award®-winner Richard Attenboroughs* directorial debut is available on DVD. Based on the stage musical by the same name, Oh! What a Lovely War features a stellar cast that includes Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm, Dirk Bogarde and Susannah York. By fusing the surreal with the factual and juxtaposing savagely funny satire with quiet sorrow, Attenborough has created the oddest and most outstanding film ever made about the "game" that became World War One.
It's a product of its Vietnam era just as surely as Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, and like that film Oh! What a Lovely War is ostensibly about a different war. Based on a celebrated anti-war stage piece produced by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, the film chronicles the various madnesses of the First World War. Along with vignettes involving the members of the fictional Smith family, the movie lands its punches with a two-pronged attack: by using the songs of the war, mostly patriotic; and by using the real-life words of various figures from WWI. You can see how this would have fit a stylized stage show; in the more literal, realistic realm of film, it mostly comes across as heavy-handed pretentiousness. Richard Attenborough, who would later explore the lives of Gandhi and Chaplin, first made his way to the director's chair here, and he enlisted a staggering who's who of his fellow British actors for roles in the large ensemble: Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson among them. John Mills plays the most bull-headed of the generals, blithely measuring out yards of territory gained by the thousands of casualties involved. The songs are a historically fascinating lot, mostly given an ironic or sinister treatment in this incarnation, as jolly patriotic tunes that mask the utter carnage at the front. Among the high points is Maggie Smith singing (well, declaiming) an ode to recruitment, promising war as a grand adventure. The blending of arch content with Attenborough's realistic staging of trench warfare just doesn't take, but what does hit home are the actual quotes and the statistics of killing; World War I set a bloody standard for sheer, blind slaughter. --Robert Horton
- Three-part documentary
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I first saw this film at Fort Polk LA, about a week before departing for the war in RVN in 1969. Originally, I decided to view it as a way to pass the time during my last weekend of leisure. However, I was blown away by the improvements that the film made over the musical review (for which I had played clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone in the pit orchestra when the review made its way through the United States).
The music was as good, but the settings in the movie were a 100% improvement over the review, which used the device of a pierot show in place of "reality".
Gorgeous cinematography, excellent screenplay, and properly stiff renditions by the "historical players" (government folks, Haig, prime ministers, emperors and foreign ministers, upper crust Britons) and loose ones by the people actually involved in the fighting (the Smith family and the soldiers who actually did the fighting and dying).
The narrator is excellent in his multiple roles, the poppy metaphor does a great job of symbolizing the death that was all around. The use of "Over There" to depict the Americans pushing their way into the war was wonderful. The soaring tenor solo over the choir in "What A Friend We Have In Jesus/When This Lousy War Is Over" is not to be missed, particularly the way the scene is filmed as the camera's shot slowly works it way to the stolid Irishman at the very end. And, the music hall sequence near the beginning was a great interface between the perceived war (on the home front) and the real war.
(Jane Seymor is in the film, but uncredited - this was her first screen appearance, as a chorus girl during the music hall sequence.)
I owned a copy of a television transmission of the movie for many years. Poor quality, it still allowed me to enjoy the film over and over. The release of the new rendition was greeted with joy around these parts. I bought a total of six copies, distributing four of them to friends who appreciated them just as much as I did. The commentary sections are also enlightening. It's hard to believe that the beauty of the amusement pier was as short lived as it was.
Since the new release, I've had the opportunity to view the review again. While I enjoyed playing in the pit for the review back in the day (particularly the long, exposed baritone sax solo in the musical review sequence), the movie does a far better job of getting the point across.
It is decidedly anti-war. However, if you have ever served in a shooting war, you will get the point of view of the film. Those who view it from "outside" of the sphere of a war may see it as disrespectful. It is anything but - it respects the dead, and mocks those who sent them off to die.
Oh, and watch for the extremely brief appearance of Lenin in the film, portrayed by an uncredited actor as the part is not a speaking one. If you blink (literally), you will miss it.
Most of my favorite British actors were in the film. The familiar classic songs with satirical lyrics were very clever, as were the settings and dialog. It was such a perfectly crafted and directed anti-war, and anti-upperclass, movie.
After viewing the DVD a few times since I purchased it, I re-watched it again, listening to Richard Attenborough's commentary. It made me appreciate the film all the more. The aging director's slow-paced comments were nonetheless very revealing, informative, and possibly the best commentary track I have yet heard on a DVD. So often director comments are about everything except what is actually on the screen. Attenborough stuck to the film, its actors, the original play's adaptation to film, and other fascinating trivia. There is also a bonus documentary with interviews of others involved with the production as well as Attenborough. I hope it eventually gets to Blu-ray, but for now, this DVD looks great!
By the way, there was a stereo LP record of the soundtrack which I still have and have transferred to CD, but the audio on the DVD is mono only. The IMDB states the original audio was mono, which I find hard to believe since all major CinemaScope/Panavision films of the day, especially big-budget ones, were produced in stereo. Anyhow it still sounds great, even in mono.