Happy Birthday, to the Greatest of All Wars. It’s 102 years since the day it finally ended. It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that officially concluded on November 11, 1918. World War One, AKA 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. 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.

Two years ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was “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 speak to the concept of the movie. While definitely musical, there’s little comedic to it. 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, “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 very accurate — but because the music is wonderful and 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.

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 mostly out of print. It comes back sometimes for a few weeks, then it’s gone again. 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. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one. qGreat 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.


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, Movies, Music, Reviews

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5 replies

  1. When I was a child I remember the old men selling the paper poppies in front of the grocery store.
    My grandfather was in France during WWI and my grandmother bought poppies each year. We used to have them in draws and boxes around the house.
    You can’t find them anymore. The “old boys” are gone and I have no idea why the current generation of vets haven’t taken this up.
    I’ve been in Canada a few times in the weeks around Armistice Day and the hotels sell poppies at the front desk. At least where I was staying.
    I guess I should have given them $20 and taken a half-dozen.
    Each year I think about talking to The American Legion or VFW about starting this up again. They could sell them in hotel lobbies and even on-line.
    But, I’m not a Vet so it doesn’t seem right for me to ask them.


  2. I’ve never seen the film, but I enjoyed these clips, so will try and look it out. A truly insane period in our history, and thank goodness the Americans did come and intervene, or else who knows how it all would have ended… A great post, Marilyn.


    • It’s also a movie made for history buffs — even if modern history isn’t your thing normally. This movie was my leap from medieval England to modern England and it was a lot more interesting than I imagined. I’ve been a bit of a world war buff since I first saw it way back in 1969. If you think we have awful leaders today, they were worse then — and were ALL sure God was on their side. It was like the crusades but with guns. Probably worse since we killed more people.

      The movie may be more available over there than here since it was an all British production and an all British (with some exceptions — such as the Australian and American troops) cast with Larry Olivier leading the charge and Attenborough in his FIRST directorial role. .


  3. Damn. I had no idea that that many men were killed in the war.. That many heartbreaks multiplied!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you have never seen this movie — assuming you can find a copy of it — it is kind of amazing and unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. No gore. The violence all happens off the screen. The words are those spoken by the actual characters played by the actors, but there’s no script. The War IS the script and the songs are ironically extremely catchy and sometimes funny. I can’t hear the “real” (non-battlefield) versions of the same songs without hearing the rewrites the men on the field rewrote.

      It’s not like any other movie I’ve ever seen. Almost all of the stars in it are now gone, too. I saw it when it opened in one theater on Long Island in 1969. Then I waited about 40 years before I could finally buy a copy of the movie — there was some argument about who owned the rights to it. I think Jeff and I saw it twice. There weren’t any VCRs yet.

      It’s a little bit abstract, though I never had any trouble following it. It’s one hell of a movie. It was one hell of a war.


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