Originally a radio play by Charles Chilton, and then a stage musical produced by Joan Littlewood in 1963, `Oh! What a Lovely War` was the first film directed by Richard Attenborough. With an outstanding cast including minor but outstanding parts by Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde and Susannah York, this film takes us into the surreal and moving events that shaped World War One. Amongst other things this film can be described as a collection of scenes following working class characters and their duties and also their naivety about the situation that surrounds them.
Filmed in and around Brighton, England, the main setting for this intimate reconstruction of satire is Brighton pier. Here we are subject to discussion and conflict between world leaders accompanied by their decorative wives below glittering chandeliers and pure white architecture. We are aware of everything that is going on, we hear discussions going on between the leaders about world affairs, we are able to analyse each angle and character as if we are there and part of it, and we observe the shock of the ladies when the Arch Duke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie are inevitably assassinated in front of their eyes.
After this event we observe dignitaries literally trample across the map of the world, the map is then rolled up on the set as if it is being put away for spring cleaning by of millions of lives in `The war to end all wars`.
Our attention throughout the film focuses on the lives of the Smith family. The good old reliable Smith family are symbolic of men and women from the same family caught up in the horrors of war. This film lets us know that this was a war which devastated not only the family but entire communities by commonly sending male members of the same family into hell, a hell which took a figure of 5 to 50,000 lives a day!
As a point of focus a fairground is set up inviting people to enter the spectacle and all its thrills, amongst the toffee apples and other goodies. The words World War One are lit up as an attraction to entice and enthuse! The fun continues as the ice cream cart and the waving of Union Jack flags add to the scene of pleasures and enticement. George Smith (Maurice Roeves) and the boys throw around a hot jacket potato as if it were a hand grenade. The clues of the horror to come are there, but age and naivety of most characters is obvious. Within these scenes the hard hitting news of the beginning of the war reaches the masses only by the cries of the paper boy at regular intervals to break up the jolly atmosphere emanating from the crowds.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig (John Mills) is selling tickets, and as the Smith family pass through the turnstile happy to participate oblivious to what awaits them on the other side. Through satire John Mills gives a chilling performance as Haig. Mills is perhaps at first an unusual choice, but it is soon apparent that Attenborough has made an excellent choice as Mills gives a believable and admirable performance in his characterisation. The fairground again is later used as symbolism as Haig’s platform to monitor the war is a watch tower on top of the helter-skelter; he is a man on high, but standing on top of a downward winding slippery slope.
The musical influence brings an atmosphere of complacency in the face of future events and ultimately human lives. The film is full of cheering songs of the time as we switch to the propaganda of the musical hall. The music hall being the recruitment venue for both young and middle aged men alike, the sing song is led by the red headed flamboyant music hall star (Maggie Smith) and a chorus of alluring pretty girls.
The message is `Be a man and enlist today`, and of course, “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go………”
The young men in the audience look confused but excited by having the opportunity to fight for their country. The music lifts our spirits while watching and listening, but at the same time we understand the heartbreak of it all and it stays with us throughout the film, after all, it is the beginning of the end.
After the recruitment process the men are off to the horrors of war. As they temporarily arrive back in Blighty the injured soldiers wonder what it is all about and how they have become part of it all. Men half dying are comforted by nurses who tell them not to worry, that they will be back at the front in no time. This gives a depressing and solemn feel adding to the sadness within this thought provoking production.
However, the men are still sent to the front. Bertie Smith (Conin Redgrave) gives a unique performance with his jolly rendition of `Goodbye` as he disappears into the distance as he goes off to war, the faces of the relatives left to wave him off on the pier say it all as he goes off into the distance, and we fear for him. However, when Bertie visits the men on the front we realise that he is protected by his status as he points out he has no idea why there is a human leg holding up the trenches. He finds it most bizarre and inconvenient; this portrayal of satire is quite common throughout the film in order to show the different classes with the sympathy on the side of the ordinary Tommy.
A heart wrenching finale as we literally follow the insane red tape scenario of the last few minutes of war. For many, this is one of the most maddening thing about the events of the ` great war`, but Attenborough in his wisdom doesn’t show anger within these last few scenes but we feel the sadness of it all emanating off our screens. Two minutes to eleven amongst heart wrenching silence, the soldier ends up on the pier where the peace treaty is slowly and methodically being signed. Still following red tape, the heads of state are oblivious and unconcerned to his passing. Attenborough does a marvellous job in demonstrating the literal meanings surrounding the scene.
With a beautiful and poignant final scene which portrays the ultimate sacrifice through very few words except through song and stunning visual imagery, this film is visually captivating in its symbolism. Portrayed by a stunning and professional cast, mission accomplished, it is a film that will no doubt live on in the minds of generations.