For all the talk about a film being “just as relevant now as when it was released”, Oh! What a Lovely War seems to fit that bill more than a lot of movies I’ve seen recently. From a screenplay by Len Deighton and directed by a first-time director (but longtime actor) in Richard Attenborough (Jurassic Park), the film may be a daunting endeavor for some to see, probably because it’s a film that’s two and a half hours long and contains a lot of songs.
It also contains a lot of dialogue, and both the songs and dialogue were from the period. The world leaders that are involved during this time of crisis include President Poincaire (Ian Holm, Lord of the Rings), Count Leopold von Berchtold (Sir John Gielgud, Arthur), Emperor Franz Josef (Jack Hawkins, Bridge on the River Kwai), to name a few.
And it’s with Berchtold and others urging when England becomes involved in the war, the people are convinced to take up arms and fight in the war without really knowing the consequences involved. Officers such as Sir Douglas Haig (John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter), General Sir Henry Wilson (Michael Redgrave, The Browning Version) and Field Marshal Sir John French (Laurence Olivier, Othello) try to communicate this to the troops, but the troops who are entrenched in the battles know better.
There are a couple of different reasons why this film works a lot better than others have. First off, using the songs that the soldiers sung during the era, whether they may be in the right environment or not, really does a lot to communicate the spirit of the enlisted man, who does the down and dirty work. There’s one scene that occurs where the English and German troops are several hundred yards away from each other, and they each sing their favorite Christmas songs, and it’s a really telling sign that the dumb-arsed officers and those who plan the war really don’t know much about it when it’s fought at a soldier’s level. The sell job that the English civilians have about the war is pretty convincing too, and is the most effective of the bunch, especially when you look at the way some countries whitewash how things really are when it comes to fighting their wars. Seeing how some of the people who aren’t involved in the combat say some of the most emotionally detached things is another one of those things that happen now, and to even hear them back then almost makes your jaw drop. Those are a couple of the events that transpire in the film, and this eerily relevant story combined with a legendary cast, including a lot of other recognizable people that I haven’t even named, really is one to watch now that it’s out on DVD.
Sadly, this film with a lot of explosions, gunfire, and songs only sports a mono soundtrack. Perhaps including a stereo track would have been the best option to go with, but Paramount has traditionally not been consumer-attentive when it comes to old catalog titles. Nevertheless, the mono track is serviceable.
2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen for your eyes to peruse. Coming up on 40, the picture has held up pretty well. The colors are a little bit inconsistent, but for the last scene in the film, it really helps to have a large display to show it off with.
Surprisingly enough, Attenborough shows up to provide a commentary on the film. He talks about the cast members of the film, and identifies which events were factually based and which were dramatically embellished. He discusses his thoughts on the war, but also does the requisite director material on breaking down some scenes, and recalling the production and shooting locations. It would have been worthwhile to perhaps include a cast member to bounce him off of, but it’s still worth listening to. The other extra is a three-part documentary on the making of the film. Lasting about an hour and 15 minutes, the piece includes interview footage with Attenborough, Edward Fox (A Passage to India), Susannah York (Superman) and a couple of other surviving cast members from the film. Everyone recalls how Attenborough was approached to do the film, and how various integral members of the cast were brought onto the project. There seem to be a lot of memories about the film, but it just doesn’t seem to bring a lot of information about the film to realization. It’s good but not great.
Oh! What a Lovely War is a film that cleverly mixes elements of musicals, comedies and satires, forming a compelling tale about war, the people that support it, and the people who fight and orchestrate it. It’s a tad on the longish side, but it’s one of the most effective anti-war portraits that remain timeless even after this film was released four decades ago. It’s a must-see for the film fan, even if it’s a little light on the extras side of things.