Happy Birthday, Great War. It’s 102 years since the day you ended. World War I (WWI), also known as the First World War or “the War to End All Wars,” was nearly global. It officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier.

It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that — technically — ended on November 11, 1918.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

For the past couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been “celebrating” the centennial of the first world war, inviting historians and military people to do the introductions and closing comments on the films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s intros and outros, the last of which was for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t really cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is one dark comedy.

It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to seeing this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, I guess we did learn a few things. We learned to build more efficient weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. We can kill more people faster — but no deader — than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs.

Catchy. Very catchy.


Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)


I 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. Its catchy score sticks in your brain.

The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable whos-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 or will. 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. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to the 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 or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

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 be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers, and 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 what 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, 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 love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.

From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. The all-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.

144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

Categories: film, History, Marilyn Armstrong, Movies, Music, Reviews

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31 replies

  1. Many of these WWI battlefields are off limits to visiting humans now. Have you been to the World War I Museum in Kansas City?


    • No. Never been to Kansas. I have, however, been to Gettysburg and Yad Vashem, Israel’s largest Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Too much death, too many tombs the world over.


  2. There’s a new movie called “1917” coming out on Christmas Day. It looks intriguing, so I’m planning to go see it. Looks pretty realistic, judging from the trailer.


  3. I don’t think I ever saw the film but am I right in thinking that John Lennon had a small part in it as well? WWI was a wicked waste of lives. All wars are of course. In Britain, it left its mark on a whole generation. My grandfather came home from it, many husbands, fathers, brothers and fiances did not. Of course, it was depressing, what do people expect? In a way, it was a giant family squabble as most of the monarchs of Europe were related through Queen Victoria. I’ve heard it referred to as “The Cousins War”. Australians regard Gallipoli as the country’s coming of age and maybe it was but it never should have happened.


  4. The history of this planet seems carved from Wars. It just never stops.


  5. War is hell and has always been. I haven’t seen the movie, and should not judge, but if The Great War didn’t teach us anything, what or who will? (rhetorical) Enjoyed the catchy tunes and shared on Twitter. A great post! Thanks, Bette


    • When I write posts like this, I know they aren’t going to be as popular as other stuff. I just think it’s important we remember. Because we are in real danger of losing context because no one knows history. Glad you enjoyed it. You would like the movie. It’s kind of amazing.


  6. I saw Oh what a lovely war on the TV in England, It really was not a lovely war. My grandfather was there, in France and other places. He was not such a young man then and was in the medical core. His job: picking up the dead from the battlefields. One day my grandmother opened the door and a man entered in uniform. “Who’s that man” asked my dad, just 4 years old. “That’s your father” said my grandmother and that was the first time my dad met his father. He left for the war before my dad was born.


  7. La Grande Guerre as elderly people still call it in France was indeed a butchery and who knows for how long without the American intervention. Sadly this bloody war wasn’t enough since it happened again. Thank you, Marilyn, for reminding us of the day it all started.


    • My mother always called it the Great War too, though she believed the two world wars were really a single war divided by a few years. Humans are good at war. I hope someday we get equally good at peace.


  8. I love this film. This film is one reason I found Spielberg’s “War Horse” so offensive. I taught about WW I in my summer literature class, including the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen. What I got for my effort to stem the disgusting tide of their reprehensible ignorance, was “It’s really depressing to hear about this.” “I didn’t like the part about WW I. I thought it was depressing.” Well, just the class I needed to help me make the decision I’ve been avoiding… I’ve been fascinated by this since I was 10 and fell in love with T. E. Lawrence (because of the movie…)


    • I think this movie had a profound influence on many people. Certainly me, my first husband (who was also a history buff, and Garry. And a lot of Brits, which I think is why so may big name actors wanted to be in it.

      The level of ignorance of history in general is profound and doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy. They find WWI depressing. I find THEM depressing. My mother kept a little leather-bound volume of Rupert Brooke’s poems for her entire life. For her, WWI was indeed The Great War, even after WWII.


      • Yeah, as they made their “depressing” comments I stared at them thinking, “Depressing, maybe, but you’re breaking my heart.” And they did. Have you read “Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest” by Wade Davis? It’s very compelling… I haven’t finished it; life got in my face but after this storm of selling the house and moving is over, I will get back to it. Lovely writing.


        • That sounds right up my alley. I’ve read Barbara Tuchman, of course … and so many others, I don’t remember all of them. But Tony Judt’s Postwar (it’s rather epic and covers the “forgotten” years since WWII to the present. It is very long (more than 900 pages) but enormously improved my understanding of the European view of what it all means.

          I’ll check it out. Maybe they have it on Audible. I mostly listen rather than read these days. My eyes don’t enjoy print anymore. Age (and eye-strain!) is our ultimate conqueror.


          • I love Barbara Tuchman. She’s one of my heroes. The first I read was Stillwell and the American Experience in China, then a major influence on my life was A Distant Mirror… Great writer.


            • A Distant Mirror is the book that lured me into the 14th Century and the whole medieval period. She was the first … but not the last. Although it’s “technically” science fiction/time travel, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is an amazing book about the 14th and the effects of the Plague.


              • Yeah — Barbara Tuchman and Thomas Cahill set me on the road to becoming a Swiss Medievalist historian… martinofgfenn.wordpress.com


    • I’d be depressed by those students. Bravo for your efforts!


    • It may be my favorite movie. Another is “The Lion in Winter” and I guess the third is “The Seventh Seal.” Garry likes the first two but he isn’t a big 14th-century fan (even though “Lion in Winter” is 12th-century, but let’s not quibble). I saw it when it was first released and as soon as videotapes were released I looked for it. It was held up for more than 25 years before it was allowed to be released and I’m pretty sure I’m one of the half dozen people who managed to get a DVD of it before they ran out of them. They show up occasionally on Amazon.

      Garry and I can sing all the songs. It’s a brilliant depiction not only of the war itself but the lunatics that were supposedly in charge of it. And the slaughter. That was an incredible butcher’s bill.

      We always watch it on Armistice Day. It reminds me why despite having lived through both wars, “the Great War” was always WWI, not II. Despite the Holocaust and Hitler, my mother always reminded me that it was WWI that was WHY we had to have the second part of the war — WWII. I’m not sure why we have needed so many wars since,

      I lot of people don’t like the movie. They find it depressing. It WAS depressing. IS depressing. It brought my history learning into the 20th century. I had previously been stuck in the 14th century for a long time and probably it was time to look at other histories.


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