How I Won the War

Movie Information

How I Won the War is part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World being presented at 8 p.m. Friday, June 15, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville (enter at Walnut next to Scully's or at 13 Carolina Lane.) Info: 273-3332.
Genre: Anti-War Satire
Director: Richard Lester
Starring: Michael Crawford, John Lennon, Roy Kinnear, Lee Montague, Jack MacGowran, Michael Hordern
Rated: NR

“I saw a film today, oh boy,” sings John Lennon in the song “A Day in the Life” from the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album. He then goes on to remark that “the English army had just won the war” and notes that while “a crowd of people turned away,” he “just had to look, having read the book.” Well, the film he saw was Richard Lester’s How I Won the War (1967), and of course Lennon had read the book, since he’d made his dramatic film debut (and swan song) in the movie, playing the role of the kleptomaniacal soldier Gripweed. Even in 1967, Lennon’s involvement in How I Won the War was the most famous thing about it. The movie itself was—and is—difficult.

Despite a straightforward, even simple plot—Goodbody (Michael Crawford), an inexperienced officer in North Africa during WWII, is instructed to lead his troop ahead of the main body of troops to build a cricket pitch for when the army gets there—the approach of the film was, to put it mildly, unorthodox. Viewers were introduced to the characters in England’s green and pleasant land at a singular cricket game where no less a personage than Adolph Hitler is—none too honestly—working the scoreboard. Goodbody tries to tell his story, despite intrusions by other soldiers (including Gripweed, who shows up to ask if he can rub Goodbody’s cricket ball: “Can I rub your ball, sir? It gives me great pleasure”), who inject how they really feel about this well-loved officer. It only gets stranger as it mocks each and every aspect of war and the military. One of the most perplexing things for some viewers was Lester’s concept that as characters were killed, they’d turn into monochromatically colored “specters,” who followed the survivors on their ridiculous mission. In part, this was to make it clear that these were actors and that no one really dies in films. (Lester once claimed to have bamboozled the British Army, which was cooperating with the film, into believing this was a test for the Technicolor cameras!)

Nothing was sacred. Jack MacGowran appeared as a soldier trying to get out of the army on a mental discharge, but his more bizarre outbursts are dismissed as him “working his ticket,” while the moment he starts quoting Churchill’s speeches he’s judged as “mad.” One soldier, Clapper (Roy Kinnear), has a wife (Fanny Carby) who sends him letters tormenting him with stories of her multiple infidelities (all of which she makes up by observing the actions of a promiscuous friend). U.S. General Omar Bradley (Alexander Knox) is depicted as a senile old fool recounting history as if appearing in a documentary. Military leaders swap “famous battle” bubble-gum cards with each other, and a soldier who has his legs blown off is advised to “stick ‘em under the cold tap, love.” Even for a Vietnam-era anti-war film, this was extreme, harsh material. It still has an edge most films would shy away from. It’s brilliant, bitter, defiant and angry. And on another level, the film has taken on a disturbingly eerie quality, thanks to Lennon’s death scene where he looks directly at the camera as he dies, saying, “I knew this’d happen. You knew it’d happen, didn’t you?”

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “How I Won the War

  1. marc dale

    this is the 1st even-handed review i’ve seen online of this film from about 30 years of cinema criticism. i’ve seen the film quite a few times now and will admit that it has taken me a few viewings to count it as one of my favorites; however straightforward it may be in intent it is not what you would linear storytelling, which i suppose can explain much of the critical resistance to it. nonetheless, i don’t hold that against it as a film worthy of viewing. on the contrary, i consider it to be as cogent a pro-war film as anti-war if viewed in the right light; a just war prosecuted competently is surely unambiguously self-justifying.

    plus, much of that prior resistance does seem linked to (a then as opposed to now?) almost nostalgic attitude toward WWII along with a de rigueur PC attitude toward the Vietnam war; i suspect that mere irreverence towards one of the seminal wartime experiences of living memory was/is, to the american mind if not others, far more tolerable than surrealist satire, even in the day and age of ann coulter and howard stern.

    calling an anti-war film petty for caricaturing winston churchill by way of a battle-loving puppet seems to me to be pressing the issue a bit, though i can understand how a film critic, particularly an american film critic in the late sixties and not inured to british accents and slang, could come to that conclusion after only one viewing of this particular film.

    but that said, it seems to me to strike a fair balance between highlighting the inevitabilities, vagararies and absurdities of war, which can often be said to differ from civilian life less in kind, really, than in degree.

  2. Ken Hanke

    A most interesting and well-reasoned commentary on the film. I had not realized that the film was regarded with disdain in the online world, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. I think a lot of what gets missed with this film is that it’s not just an anti-war film, but it’s an anti-war-film film — rather in the same way that John Boorman’s EXORCIST II is an anti-horror-film film (albeit less successfully).

    This is also one of those hard-to-find films. I don’t know if the announced DVD was ever made available in the U.S., but I know it was originally announced and then pulled. It’s certainly not available now — except in a Region 2 disc from the UK.

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