Directed by Richard Attenborough
We watch it every year on Memorial Day, the best movie ever made about ‘the war to end war.’ It was just as good this year — in the same funny, awful way — as it was every other year.
I first saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance, and irony. The catchy score sticks in your brain. The songs are those sung by the troops, and the cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen. The credits are a who’s-who of English actors.
World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do. Its causes are rooted in old world grudges that make no sense to Americans. So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.
My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse.”
Hers may be as good an answer as any. When the war began, it was the old world, ruled by crowned heads of ancient dynasties. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918, the world was remade — beyond recognition. The monarchies were gone. A generation of men were dead, the death toll beyond belief. The callous indifference to loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.
More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease and starvation. It remains one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, paving the way for major political upheaval and revolution in many nations.
You can’t make this stuff up. And why would you want to?
Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”
The first World War could well be categorized as an organized international effort to murder a generation and they did a damned good job of it. The absurd statements and dialogue of the historical characters, all safely lodged a safe distance from actual fighting, sound ludicrous.
Did General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really say: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? Apparently he said it. And meant it.
The arrival of the Americans, their takeover of the endless war and bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to preserve, is a great moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would they still be fighting it today? Would Europe even exist or would it be a wasteland?
The war is told with music and dancing. Songs are mixed with pithy comments by generals, kings, Kaisers and occasionally, soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and the meaning of those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.
The music is ghastly, funny and catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and also love great movies, grab one before they disappear. Over Memorial Day weekend, one of the movie channels usually plays it. I didn’t see it listed this year, but we own a copy, so I didn’t look very hard.
Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and surprisingly informative, this motion picture is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You will not be disappointed and you will never forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I never forgot it.