I remember that my high school history classes didn’t always give equal time to all of the major conflicts that the US was involved in. We spent a lot of time on the Vietnam War, after all it had occurred within our lifetimes, but the Korean War only got a short unit. I remember that we spent a lot of time on World War II, but World War I…not so much. Well, if you’re not looking to bury your face in a big textbook to brush up on the first “war to end all wars,” then we’ve got the film for you! Plus, it’s a musical to boot! Get ready to sing and dance your way through the trenches with Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1969 directorial debut, Oh! What a Lovely War.
It’s hard to say the film really has a “story” as it mainly consists of a series of vignettes, many involving music, which summarize some of the events of World War I, primarily from a British standpoint. The opening sequence is actually pretty confusing as it features several actors representing various kings, rulers, and diplomats as they argue and plot on what looks an awful lot like a huge version of the game board from Risk. It all eventually culminates in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife…kicking off the war.
From there the war itself is portrayed as somewhat of a carnival at a pier in a British seaside town. There are ticket takers and rides and everyone is in good spirits about the whole thing. We get a musical number with soldiers frolicking around a carousel and a dance hall queen (portrayed by Maggie Smith) recruiting young able-bodied men to join the army with her burlesque show.
The mood of the film does start to shift a bit as the war continues. We don’t get as much of the carnival atmosphere and start to see some more (relatively) realistic portrayals of war. One of the most interesting sequences involves British and German troops emerging from their trenches to have a drink together on a bleak and snowy Christmas day. Events continue to unfold all the way up to America’s entry into the war. Through it all there are many songs, most of which were popular tunes of the war era. There are also many appearances by famous British actors in small roles, including: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, Dirk Bogarde, and more.
In some ways, this feels like the most ambitious high school term paper ever…set to music. Doing a musical based on the entire four year conflict is ambitious, but I can’t say it really succeeds. The film does seem to assume that the events it portrays are fresh in everyone’s mind. As I said earlier, I learned a bit about World War I in high school, but not as much as I did with other conflicts. Plus, the fact that I’m American and not British has an impact as well. With the abstract way many aspects of the war are portrayed, it doesn’t help to make things any clearer. Not to mention the fact that the film doesn’t fully commit to the abstract approach, which just confused me all the more.
I actually think the film fares much better when it goes for a more realistic portrayal of the war. The Christmas sequence was for me the film’s most effective moment. It shows the bleakness the soldiers faced huddled up in cold snowy trenches, but as the scene progresses there’s also a real sweetness and playful side to the sequence as the two warring sides put their differences aside for one day they both see as sacred. The sequence has real heart that is lacking in much of the rest of the film.
In general, the film is just a bit too big and bloated for its own good. It jumps from musical number to musical number in a somewhat disjointed fashion and never really gives us any one character as a central focus. From a technical standpoint there is certainly some nice camera work and striking sets and costumes, but with it’s lack of focus it all feels about as drawn out as the war itself.