While the cinematic corpses of unwatched recently released antiwar pictures rot on the floors of multiplexes everywhere, it’s interesting to look at Richard Attenborough’s 1969 antiwar film Oh! What a Lovely War, which, wisely, took a different route by being about a war other than the one that was then raging. Clearly influenced by Richard Lester’s How I Won the War (1967)—which may in itself have been influenced by the play on which Attenborough’s film is based—Oh! What a Lovely War presents WWI as a kind of “event,” a music-hall show, an end-of-the-pier entertainment (in fact Brighton Pier is used to represent England in the film). Flawed though it undeniably is—in the course of its 144 minutes, you may occasionally feel as if you’re experiencing WWI in real time—it remains the most interesting and daring film Attenborough ever made (and it was his first).
The shrewdness of the piece lies in the way it pulls the viewer in to emulate the war era itself—moving from oh-so-jolly jingoism and “isn’t war a grand adventure?” notions, to increasing disillusionment, to outright bitterness, to the unthinkable tragedy that literally killed off an entire generation of Britain’s best and brightest. The fact that Attenborough filled the film with “guest spots” for nearly every Brit thespian of note actually works as something other than a stunt. Maggie Smith’s music-hall star enticing young men to sign up with hints of sex and the promise of adventure is brilliant. Vanessa Redgrave’s bit as suffragette and antiwar activist Sylvia Pankhurst not only suggests Redgrave’s own political activism, but it results in a scene of unusual power as she’s shouted down by an uninformed public who simply don’t want to know anything but what the government tells them. (In itself an interesting parallel to the response given to current antiwar films.) At its best, the film is brilliant. At its worst, it’s clunky. But it comes close to a must-see.