“I saw a film today oh boy, The English army had just won the war.”
These words, from John Lennon’s section of A Day in the Life, on the Sergeant Pepper’s album, are probably all that many people know of the 1967 film How I Won the War, which Lennon had just appeared in. The movie was a commercial and critical failure that really began the decline in fortunes of its director, Richard Lester, who had just recently been a 60s wunderkind with the two Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (1965), and the Palme D’Or-winning The Knack…and How to Get It (also ’65).
Despite its poor reception, the film has not been altogether forgotten, lurking on the edges of rediscovery for forty years. It’s a film that even detractors can see modest virtues in, since it’s inventive and distinctive if nothing else. But perhaps it’s more than that: perhaps it offers a satirical assault on the warmongering of popular cinema which is relevant to this day, and as a Brechtian film of ideas it may be far more artistically successful than those approaching it simply as a zany comedy might think.
Lester, like many filmmakers, has faced the problem in his career of having each new film reviewed in the light of the previous. When he made the rather serious Robin and Marian in 1976, reviewers complained that it wasn’t as funny as his version of The Three Musketeers (1973) – it wasn’t meant to be. Following on the heels of the Beatles films, The Knack, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) – a historical comedy with no real serious intent – Lester’s anti-war statement was likely to be misperceived. Those critics who were able to engage with the film’s message were either offended by it (the tabloids) or found it redundant in light of the work of Godard (Sight and Sound magazine) – which is missing the point that Lester’s film was an English-language mainstream product, targeted at (but missing) a far wider public than Godard’s Les Carabiniers(1963).
Lester’s starting point was a novel by Patrick Ryan (“But I just had to look / Having read the book,” sang Lennon) which he disliked. Working with Royal Court playwright Charles Wood (Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968), Lester followed the same procedure he had taken with Ann Jellicoe’s play of The Knack: explode the source, then put it back together in a new form. Wood wrote numerous drafts, taking material directly from the book but ordering it in
unconventional ways and disrupting it with all kinds of verfremdungseffekt (Lester has ruefully observed that these alienation effects were too successful: “One has learnt over the years that Brechtian alienation is a euphemism for audience’s backs seen disappearing down a street.”)
The resulting film follows a bizarre structure, beginning in the middle, flashing back, proceeding past the point of the framing structure into uncharted terrain, and continually interrupting itself with cinematic tropes like an audience in a cinema watching the film (the auditorium is mostly empty!) and a wholly allegorical England-Germany cricket match with Hitler as scorer. Madness reigns.
Along the way, characters step forward to address the audience (Lennon’s speculation on Why We Fight, delivered as he sits dying from a battlefield wound, made his wife Cynthia cry: she said that this was just how Lennon would look when he died), slain soldiers are replaced by anonymous soldiers dyed from head to foot the colour of the battle they were slain in (for each battle is colour-coded) and the theme from Lawrence of Arabia (1965) invades the soundtrack at inopportune moments. Lester is using every trick in his book to interrupt the action and destroy the narrative, rather than help them along. Once we accept that this is a deliberate stratagem and ask why it is being done, we have a far better chance of getting along with this perverse piece of cinema.
Lester and Wood were dedicated to the proposal that the horrors of war should not be recycled as entertainment. The film sets out to argue this, by parodying war-movie clichés alongside grisly violence. The melodramatic platitudes are rendered appalling in the face of realistic bloodshed (and recreations of Montgomery’s least successful battles), and even much of the comedy is designed to elicit pain rather than mirth. As a soldier lies in the sand with his feet blown off, his wife inexplicably appears by his side, gives a heartfelt speech to camera about the nobility of suffering, and when interrupted by the actual suffering of her spouse, advises, “Oh, run ‘em under the cold tap, love.” Much of the comedy IS riotously funny, or breathtakingly bizarre, but some of it is just a mockery of the kind of “comic relief” used to celebrate military camaraderie in conventional war flicks.
If the film offers entertainment, it is not of the mindless variety: one has the pleasure of engaging in a spirited argument with a passionate and intelligent “opponent”. The film is not preachy, it is not particularly concerned with being anti-war, but it does expose humbug and ridicule hypocrisy and patriotic mania. To obtain these pleasures, a viewer has to really interrogate the film and work with it on its own terms. Audiences of the time hoping for a nostalgic elegy like Richard Attenborough’s well-received Oh What a Lovely War (1969) would be baffled by this film’s anger, absurdity, and fragmented approach. While the Attenborough film deals with a war which was safely historical, and which most people would agree was acceptable to criticise, and is stuffed to bursting with Great English Actors, giving it an Establishment seal of approval, Lester had the nerve to lampoon Churchill (who had recently died) and tackle the Just War, with an explosively mixed cast.
Michael Crawford, a former child actor who always brings a childlike quality to his adult roles (most infamously in the sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em), had starred in two previous Lester films, and brings his astonishing physical comedy prowess to bear on the lead role of Lieutenant Ernest Goodbody. One gag has him catapulted through the air, landing headfirst in the desert sand and sinking up to his waist, so that his legs are left kicking helplessly. To facilitate his penetration of the ground, a sack of wet oatmeal was buried under a thin layer of sand. To Crawford’s horror, the oatmeal had gone off and was crawling with maggots, as he discovered upon diving into it.
Crawford was criticised for being shrill and over-the-top in his performance, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the film’s mixture of humour and malaise: Crawford is at times almost unbearable to watch, especially as he staggers down a hill, his skeletal legs exposed in his khaki shorts, experiencing one of the characters few moments of doubt: “I can’t fight a war on my own. I’m rather too young.”
Lester surrounds his star with a rich mixture of playing styles, aiming for discordance rather than a smooth fit. Jack MacGowran as Private Juniper, the madness of war personified, brings all his experience of playing in Samuel Beckett’s theatre of the absurd. John Lennon brings a different set of associations (for this film he abandoned his contact lenses and donned the “granny glasses” that became his trademark). Roy Kinnear’s nervous ebullience and Lee Montague’s fierce intensity add yet more colours to the dramatic palette, and whenever one of them comes to close to engaging audience sympathies, the film closes the emotional shutters and disrupts reality with a duff joke or a surreal visual non sequiteur.
Lester has said, “How I Won the War was an honestly felt attempt, in that technical sense, to try to avoid the trap of the Technicolor war film – the great toys, music and pictures, so you end that you can’t make an anti-war film because you’re going out rooting for one side to blow up the others.”
So Lester simply STOPS THE FILM whenever the danger of identification gets too great, and he also gives his troop a nonsensical mission which is “self-alienating”: to build an “advance cricket pitch” three hundred miles behind enemy lines in the North African desert, so that Monty can be impressed when his troops eventually advance to meet it. There’s little chance of an audience really rooting for the success of such a mission, and if there is, it’s frustrated when a) the mission is accomplished but Monty’s only response is “What wotten bowling,” and b) the film proceeds to trundle along for another half-hour. One can’t entirely blame the public for feeling manipulated, although in fact Lester’s manipulations are simply more overt and above-board than the feelgood propaganda of 1940s dramas or the anti-war posturing of humanist war films like Paths of Glory. When it comes down to it, despite the merits of these films as cinema, they still invite the audience to support one side over the other.
If this makes the film sound dry and didactic, it’s not: there’s much entertainment to be drawn from the barrage of cinematic gimmicks and gags. You just have to be prepared for the laughter to stop abruptly as the film makes its points. There’s enjoyment to be had, but it’s never straightforward, and the audience has to put in some work.
Lester’s commercial successes have tended to be films where the serious points could be ignored by both audiences and critics, who would be satisfied with comedy and visual gimmicks. His flops, such as Petulia (1968), The Bed Sitting Room (1969), and Cuba (1979) have often been films where the mask of humour has slipped and revealed a deeply serious mind examining painful and difficult issues. If you can handle the close proximity of tragedy and the absurd to be found in these films, then How I Won the War may give you new ways of thinking about war, film, and the war film.
David Cairns Shadowplay film blog