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Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
"Ladies and gentlemen, take your positions for the ever-popular War Game!"
First of all, I should probably point out that I am almost certainly one of the youngest to review this film. My parents both saw the original stage production and are often waxing lyrical about it, so naturally when I discovered we also owned the DVD, my interest was piqued.
And...what a film it is!
Having been raised watching films dating back to the 50s, the 'dated' (if you can call it that) cinematography didn't concern me a bit. Instead, I was captivated all the way through, from the opening where the initial preparations of war are played out like an absurd live action game of Risk, to the final heart-wrenching shot of what seem to be endless rows of crosses. Despite the film's unusually long running time I found I wasn't once bored (and that's quite an achievement). I was astonished to find out this was Richard Attenborough's directorial debut - it seemed as well directed as any, and better than some, long-time directors.
The film begins on pier where the start of the war is heralded by the public like some sort of carnival, before degenerating into the bleak, shell-shocked atmosphere we've come to associate with both World Wars. The film follows the Smith family as each male in the family signs up to take part in WWI, as well as glimpses into historical figures such as Sir Douglas Haig (played to perfection by Sir John Mills). The film is deeply satirical and unashamedly critical in its views of these officers who ordered thousands to their deaths as part of misguided attrition tactics. A memorable shot occurs during the title song, where Haig stumbles around blindfolded as part of a game of Blind Man's Bluff while a large cricket scoreboard looms over him displaying horrifying statistics of men lost vs ground gained.
The film holds much of this juxtaposition between gut-wrenching realism and pathos, and events so ridiculous you almost can't help but laugh - a prime example being the arrival of the Americans into the war (cheerfully singing 'Over There') and the astounded expressions on the faces of Haig and co., and a second later you're back in the trenches with one of the Smiths preparing for a final offensive. The film is also deeply symbolic: there is no blood and all deaths occur of screen but all are foreshadowed by the appearance of a poppy near the doomed soldiers so that their fate is left in no doubt, all the while an eerily cheerful Joe Melia continues to pop up giving significant glances and smirks to the viewer as each Smith signs up - a figure easily comparable to Joel Grey's Emcee in 'Cabaret'.
As someone who has been disillusioned with the idea of Remembrance Day since it seemingly became a promotional tool for any war our country currently invites itself into, this film certainly helped me remember what that day is really about. In my opinion, this film holds up against modern WWI films such as War Horse or Saving Private Ryan; however this film has the advantage of having (quite literally) an all-star cast who are all at the top of their game: names like John Mills, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier, several Redgraves, Susannah York - all of whom are still known and recognised today.
I don't care if this film was made before I was born; we need more films like this nowadays: less 3D CGI gimmick-y, more geared towards delivering a structured film with stellar acting from all involved. An absolute perfect 10.