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Oh! What a Lovely War

Oh! What a Lovely War(1969)

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teaser Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

A year after American musical theater was overturned in 1968 with Hair, the silver screen offered a very different kind of song-driven combat spectacle from Great Britain with Oh! What a Lovely War, the first credited directorial effort for established actor Richard Attenborough. The approach couldn't be more different as the source material was a lavish stage musical by Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton, whose company premiered it at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1963.

The traditions of music hall songs and radio newscasts which had informed the United Kingdom's cultural sensibilities during wartime were the foundation here, with Littlewood and Chilton's version avoiding any direct depictions of the horrific side of war like death and military costumes. Instead it was intended as a satirical pastiche, lancing at what she perceived as the buffoonery of war in all its incarnations. The idea for the stage production had actually originated in 1961 as a Chilton radio show, "The Long, Long Trail," with music selections telling the tragic saga of World War I.

The film version was lensed in Sussex (complete with a 65-year-old locomotive brought into a Brighton train station) and made the catastrophic toll of the deaths of thousands more explicit through powerful symbolic use of red poppies and cemetery crosses, devices that would go on to influence several later films (most notably Ken Russell's Tommy, 1975). The entirety of World War I is conveyed from start (with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand) through its wasteful, destructive path to completion years later.

Brought on board to produce alongside Attenborough were photographer Brian Duffy and popular novelist Len Deighton, whose espionage novels included The Ipcress File. All three men had previously worked in different capacities on 1968's Only When I Larf, adapted from Deighton's novel of the same name, and on this film the writer took on adaptation duties. There isn't exactly a traditional plot per se as dozens of songs are performed (all of them accurate to the period and most sung by soldiers at the time) and historical transcripts are integrated within the setting of a seaside pavilion and amusement park.

Interestingly, Deighton would go uncredited on the final film (which has no credited screenwriter); accounts vary as to why, with initial statements indicating that Deighton and the film's distributor, Paramount, were at legal loggerheads over the handling of their adaption of his novel, Funeral in Berlin, though a trade story in Variety (March 17, 1969) indicated that "hassle arose over a difference of opinion as to Attenborough's interpretation of the film, which Deighton believes should have been tougher."

The linking device for all of this is the Smith family, whose men of different generations become grist for the war machinery in one form or another. Along the way the film unveils an eye-popping succession of guest stars, most brought on after early cast member Laurence Olivier agreed to an appearance. Among the familiar faces are Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Susannah York, John Mills, Maggie Smith, Ralph Richardson, Kenneth More, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Jack Hawkins, a very young Jane Seymour, Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, and many more. Still recuperating from traumatic radiation treatment for cancer, Olivier quickly established authority on the set for the first-time director by loudly proclaiming, "Dick, you'd better give me direction on this scene."

The film was rapturously received in the U.K. where it became a major box office hit, though the reception in America was respectful if somewhat more muted. Variety proclaimed, "It may be a long time before a better, more moving and significant film emanates from any movie studio," and Daily Express noted that "you've never seen so many damp film critics in your life" by the finale. On the other hand, The New Republic took it to task as "one more safe, flattering little anti-war film, a smug little exercise in mordant righteousness." Attenborough remained vocally supportive of the film for decades, including personal appearances for screenings when it was reissued from the BFI in the U.K. Of course, this project also set him on a successful path behind the camera helming such films as Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Magic (1978), Chaplin (1992), and the film that would earn him an Oscar for Directing, Gandhi (1982). On multiple occasions, Attenborough would attribute his decision to jump into directing to advice he received from none other than David Lean: "Don't direct just because you want to direct. Direct the project so that it means so much to you that you'll die if you don't do it."

By Nathaniel Thompson

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