21 Feb 2021 Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War
By Philip Lee
Cinema has seen hundreds of war films. Many glorify heroism. Many depict horror. “What sets the best war movies apart, though, is their ability to never lose sight of the real human cost of war. The true masterpieces of the genre can deliver spectacle, yes, but they also tell us something more essential at the heart of every epic struggle in human history, something that unites us all no matter which side of the battle we may be on.”1
In 1961 the military historian and politician Alan Clark published The Donkeys: A History of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, a revisionist account of the early years of British involvement in the First World War. In 1963 Joan Littlewood, a British director famous for developing the left-wing Theatre Workshop, produced a stage musical called Oh, What a Lovely War! based on Clark’s book and on a few a scenes adapted from Czech humourist Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1969, British director Richard Attenborough transformed that musical into a film involving many of the leading stage and film actors of the day.
The stage musical is traditionally performed in Pierrot costumes, using images of war and shocking statistics projected onto a backcloth in stark contrast to the satirical comedy of the action. The stroke of genius of director Richard Attenborough and his screenplay writer Len Deighton was to recast the stage version in a mise en scène combining “reality” with end-of-the-pier burlesque.
Actually filmed on West Pier, Brighton, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, and caricaturing the class distinctions between officers and “other ranks”, the statistics of war dead are presented on cricket scoreboards. Some critics, notably the American Pauline Kael in a review originally published in The New Yorker, felt that this treatment diminished the impact of the appalling numbers of deaths.2 Yet the desperate irony was not lost on other viewers, who recognised British sang froid, and it is considerably reinforced by the film’s overall tone and its powerful ending.
Oh! What a Lovely War places some thirty First World War ballads and music hall numbers within a fanciful but coherent historical narrative. Wartime euphoria is juxtaposed with life and death in the trenches and with the constant flow of maimed young men returning home from across the Channel. The songs comment on the misery and banality of life at the front and the horror and absurdity of war. One is sung to the tune of the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus” and acts as a counterpoint to the army padre’s blessing of soldiers before they go into action:
“When this lousy war is over
No more soldiering for me.
When I get my civvy clothes on,
Oh, how happy I shall be!
No more church parades on Sunday,
No more putting in for leave.
I shall kiss the sergeant-major,
How I’ll miss him, how he’ll grieve!
It is 1914. The film begins with a pageant of the crowned heads of Europe and their prime ministers cavorting on a giant map. Each country assures its neighbours of its peaceful intentions while simultaneously preparing for hostilities. An emcee-like character, who reappears throughout the film, gives poppies to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife. The photographer’s flashbulb explodes and they are both dead. A senile Emperor Franz Josef is tricked into signing a declaration of war and the nobility assure each other that the hostilities to come will not change their personal affection for each other.
The assassination of the Austrian Archduke, aided and abetted by a tangle of aristocratic alliances, deceit, and diplomatic ineptitude, throws Europe into chaos. In England, a rousing patriotic campaign ensures widespread enlistment and optimism for a quick victory over the “Huns”. All the conscription-age males in the Smith family – representing the common person – enthusiastically join a sea-front march by the Grenadier Guards, obtaining their entrance tickets to the pier (whose fun-fair sign reads “World War I”) at a booth run by the arrogant and career-minded Lieutenant-General Douglas Haig. The theme of an incompetent and class-bound military leadership throwing thousands of men into battle on a daily basis for weeks, months, and years recurs throughout the film.
In the music hall at the end of the pier, the Smith women watch their sons, husbands and sweethearts being enticed on stage by vaudeville artiste Ella Shields (the “Southern Nightingale”, who sang the original music hall song “Oh! It’s a lovely war”). Before she appears, a chorus of girls carrying lacrosse sticks perform against a backcloth that represents the elitist Roedean School for Young Ladies (situated close to Brighton) – reinforcing, for those who recognize the allusion, the film’s class divisions. The music hall act is the lure; reality strikes when the men step on stage to meet a garishly made-up and overlit Ella Shields who immediately hands them over to the kind of recruiting-sergeant familiar from Kitchener’s famous “Your Country Needs You” poster.
Most of the songs in the film are about the miseries or daydreams of the soldiers at the front. Some are given a macabre twist: “Hush! Here comes a whiz-bang … and it’s headed straight for you!” In another scene a group of scruffy and unruly Australians sing “One staff officer jumped right over another staff officer’s back”, lampooning the officer corps that kept a safe distance from the front. At the other end of the spectrum, “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) is sung during the so-called “Christmas Truce” that took place on the Ypres Salient in 1914 when soldiers from both sides left their trenches for a few hours to greet each other in No-Man’s Land.
The military high command conduct their campaign at one end of the stylized and sanitised pier from which only distant gunfire is audible. On a tower high above the pier, now Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig peers at the French coast through a spyglass while, in the ballroom below, the cricket scoreboard shows the name of the current battle followed by the daily tallies: “60,000 soldiers killed. Ground gained: Zero”. Back in France, wagonloads of simple white crosses are being delivered to the front lines and the soldiers are digging mass graves. We begin to realize that the Smith boys and their comrades are unlikely to be coming home.
We hope God will look kindly on our attack
Oh! What a Lovely War is not overtly anti-religious. Yet the hypocrisy of supporting the futile stalemate of trench-warfare, the connivance of officers and the established church, are underlined in a number of scenes claiming that God is on the side of the British. At New Year 1916, Haig affirms that “God is with us” and “Every step I take is guided by Divine Will.” However, this is the stubborn, self-righteous, and inflexible “Butcher of the Somme” speaking. The attitude of many of Haig’s contemporaries, and the assumed stance of many clergy serving in the army, are encapsulated in the padre’s speech given in a ruined church on the eve of yet another attack:
“Dearly beloved brethren, I am sure you will be glad to hear the news from the Home Front. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it known that it is no sin to labour for war on the Sabbath. And I am sure you would also like to know that the Chief Rabbi has absolved your Jewish brethren from abstaining from pork in the trenches. Likewise, His Holiness the Pope has ruled that the eating of flesh on Fridays is no longer a mortal sin. And in faraway Tibet, the Dalai Lama has placed his prayers at the disposal of the Allies. Now brethren, tomorrow being Good Friday, we hope God will look kindly on our attack.”
This scene initiates a series of prayers. Haig prays: “Oh God, show thy face to us as thou didst with thy Angels at Mons” (a reference to a group of angels who supposedly protected members of the British army during the Battle of Mons at the outset of World War I). One of the Smith family, who has joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, prays: “Lord, I beg you, do not let this dreadful war cause all this suffering… I know you will answer my prayer!” She is answered by gunfire. Haig again: “I thank you God. The attack was a great success. The fighting has been severe, but that was to be expected. There has been some delay along the Menin Road, but the ground is thick with enemy dead.” The film is scathing about the British Empire’s enlistment of divine providence.
At the end of the film, one of the Smith boys is the last solider to die before the Armistice. He follows a red ribbon leading from the trenches, through No-Man’s Land, to the pier-end ballroom where a peace treaty is being signed. In this dream sequence, he runs in shirtsleeves and bare feet on the green grass of England’s South Downs. Three of the Smith women are picnicking a few yards away, but cannot see him.
In the film’s final shot, the camera pulls back from a single white cross on the Downs to reveal the Smith women in their white Sunday dresses moving between rank after rank of white grave markers. The screen fills with hundreds of crosses that blur into a shocking expression of the numbing reality of millions of lives wasted.
The scene is reminiscent of the grim epilogue to the film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), when the ghosts of German soldier Paul Baumer and his comrades march through a sea of white crosses in fields strewn with corpses. Today, both are mirrored in graves elsewhere in Europe: at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The anti-war film as a civilising influence
There are clearly different perceptions of the First World War in the national histories (and mythologizing) of the U.S.A. and Great Britain. American film critic Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times (3 October 1969) described Oh! What a Lovely War as “focused on a dim, far-off era that now seems almost as remote as the time of the Wars of the Roses.” That was not the case in Britain, where an annual ceremony of national remembrance – with the poppy as its chief symbol – and a growing number of revisionist history books kept World War I in the public gaze. Robert Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun (30 October 1969) thought that, “the deepest impact of the film comes from the realization that there have been wars even more horrible since this one” – a significant comment.
It is a paradox that the great achievements of civilisation – literature, music, art, cinema, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – are not in themselves capable of civilising humanity. Yet cinema can still be – in the words of Australian film critic Peter Malone – a “moral compass” for the great issues of life and death. Anti-war films question the expected allegiance of ordinary people to geopolitical and economic ambition. They don’t ask what are you fighting for so much as why are you fighting? They underscore what the poet Wilfred Owen called “the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
We need films like Oh! What a Lovely War to remind us of our common humanity. It challenges what is brushed under the carpet: political expedience, disinformation, lies, and the brutalities that inevitably ensue. It challenges what Samuel Earle calls the allure of war, “a kind of ideal: a time when everyone knew their place and happily fought together against a foreign threat.”3
The sad fact remains that, in a world in which governments flout the UDHR and disparage the United Nations system, in which geopolitical and economic interests outweigh the lives and dignity of millions of human beings, in which inequality and poverty are seemingly entrenched, the striking lessons of films like Oh! What a Lovely War have yet to be learnt.
1. Jackson, Matthew. “The 25 Greatest War Movies of All Time”. Mental Floss. 9 January 2020.
2. Kael, Pauline (1973). “Off with the statues’ heads!” in Deeper Into Movies. Boston: Atlantic Little Brown.
3. Earle, Samuel. “Remembrance Day is an exercise in collective amnesia.” The Guardian, 8 November 2020.
Philip Lee is General Secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) and Editor of its international journal Media Development. His publications include Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012); and Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces (ed. with Lorenzo Vargas) (2020).