The year is 1914, and in Europe the heads of the various nations are beginning to grumble about each other, with the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand's position shaky, as France is eyeing Serbia as a possible cause for aggression. When he is assassinated, France delcares war, drawing in the other countries to be pitted against each other, but you cannot have a war without soldiers so the call goes up to the men of Europe to take up arms against their neighbours. Roll up, roll up for the ever popular war games! With songs, battles and a few jokes!
Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War was a legendary stage production of the nineteen-sixties, skewering the warmongers by taking the instigators of World War I to task, and such was its impact that actor and producer Richard Attenborough and writer Len Deighton secured the rights and began drawing up their plans to bring it to the screen. Some years later it was finished, Deighton had removed his producer's credit thanks to a falling out with Attenborough, and the reviews were mixed to say the least. Many who had seen this originally in the theatre version were dismayed at what they viewed as a clumsy and heavy-handed, if impressively star-studded, adaptation.
However, there were others who appreciated that by opening out much of what had been staged on a pier set in the source, first time director Attenborough had brought a much-needed cinematic sensibility to what after all could have simply been a film of the play. Indeed, it was those sequences which owed the most to the play that seemed stuffy and airless, and when he allowed his story to breathe by employing the tricks of the movie business he tapped into what he wished to bring across. That being the senseless loss of millions of lives as part of the Great War, and Attenborough with his famously left-leaning outlook relished the chance to attack the ruling classes for their callousness.
We are supposed to be following the travails of the Smith family, who see their young men drafted or volunteering as they believe it is their duty to Britain, which the film understands but refuses to condone, viewing those soldiers as misguided in their patriotism when the world would have been much better off with them left alive. It is historical figures such as Douglas Haig (John Mills), the leader of the British forces, who receive the most corrosive depictions, continually sending his men into battle as the casualties mount up in horrifying numbers: a scoreboard shows that not only do conflicts such as the Somme see hundreds of thousands of people die in a matter of days, but that many are cut down in the space of hours too.
This retained the music of the play, so popular songs of the day, many of them still recognisable tunes now, were sung by the cast and placed in context where you can understand the true meaning of their apparently carefree lyrics, which turn out to be nothing of the sort. This cheeriness in the face of death is admirable, but doesn't stop the soldiers dying, and eventually the increasing misery becomes relentless no matter how often ironic counterpoints are introduced. By 1969 when this was released the anti-war movement had come on in leaps and bounds, and sadly the film's themes have never really gone out of fashion, but for all the criticism it received there was a noble quality here, even if it was a folly for many. Attenbrough rarely liked to do things by halves in regard to his directorial outings, and if the results in this case were more elephantine and heaving with significance, they conveyed emotional power almost in spite of their overbearing style. The unforgettable final shot of the multitude of crosses proves that.