Review: Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Oh! What a Lovely War


Richard Attenborough
Len Deighton (Musical Play: Joan Littlewood; Play: Charles Chilton)
144 min.
Paul Daneman, Ian Holm, Guy Middleton, Juliet Mills, Dirk Bogarde, Jean-Pierre Cassel, John Clements, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Susannah York, John Mills
MPAA Rating

Buy on DVD



Source Material

While any film depicting war realistically could be considered anti-war, there’s a difference between a popular war film like Saving Private Ryan, which paints a vivid picture, but hardly tries to present the war as anything but historical spectacle and something like The Thin Red Line, which takes a historical perspective that shines a light on the depravity of soldiers and the utter pointlessness of war. Comedy has had a much easier time portraying the ludicrousness of war and coming out effectively against such conflicts. M*A*S*H is probably the most famous of these, but a little-seen gem like Oh! What a Lovely War is far more successful at conveying its aims.

A kind of musical, farcical comedy, Oh! What a Lovely War is a luscious film that paints World War One in the most horrendous light, painting the dealmakers who set the conflict in motion as selfish, incompetent men looking for a way to win a war without putting a lot of thought into it. The film is segmented into themed vignettes, each highlighting a different aspect of the war from the run up to the execution with creativity and tongue bitingly in cheek. The film opens inside an opulent tent, one of the key settings for the film, where a grand series of rich appointments add a minimalist style to the proceedings as a group of politicians and diplomats discuss the various issues facing the southeastern portion of Europe and culminating a shocking portrait capturing the stylized assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife. From there, the film shows us a Risk-like board game of will-we or won’t-we diplomatic discussions about entering the war. Then there’s the World War One carnival with soldiers on merry-go-rounds, puppet performances of military decision making, nickelodeons of war theater and other rich visuals. You even have an evocative scene of a burlesque-style show where pretty women entice young men into service in the military only to become numeric casulaties later displayed on tracking board designed like a baseball field marquee.

There are any number of poignant and important images within the film and it’s all punctuated by actual dialogue spoken or written during the war and musical parodies featuring anti-war sentiments, commentary and observations set to music that was popular in the period and sung by soldiers during the war. All of it is so bold and original that it’s little surprise that it wasn’t nearly as popular with audiences as it should have been. Matter of fact, it should come as no surprise that the film was created in Great Britain and not the United States where such farce would be met with a bit too much hostility. But, since the film is set in England and against the backdrop of the British participation and casualties of the war, it’s only fitting that it originate from there.

If the film has one flaw, it’s that it runs a bit long and you can feel every minute of it. Also, while I can appreciate all of the poppy symbolism and all of the other comparative analogies, some of the choices are far too obvious and heavy-handed, but considering the general thrust of the film, I can’t say it’s either surprising or unwarranted.

If you love film and especially enjoy when filmmakers and actors poke fun at war and its repercussions as a way to encourage a divergence from such future events, then you’ll very much enjoy this film. If you prefer your war films to be patriotic and full of hope and not acrimony, then this isn’t your film.
Review Written
January 24, 2011

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