How I Won the War Review
This is the tale of Lieutenant Ernest Goodbody (Michael Crawford), commanding a platoon in the African desert campaign in World War Two, and how he, in his hapless and inept way, won the War.
How I Won the War is many things, perhaps too many for one film to contain in the hour and fifty-one minutes it’s on screen. It certainly qualifies as satire, but of what? It’s not so much an anti-war film, as it acknowledges that some wars do need to be fought. In this case, that’s the Second World War, one within the memories and experience of much of the potential audience when it was released in 1967. It’s instead an anti-war-movie film, with the frequent jingoism and glorification of combat of that genre in its sights.
Born in 1932 in Philadelphia, Richard Lester began working in television in 1950 in his home country and later in that decade in his adopted home of the UK. Meeting Peter Sellers, he made the Oscar-nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, shot over two weekends in 1959. He made commercials amongst his directing for both television and the cinema, which he began in 1962. The seven years from then to the end of the decade displayed an astonishing burst of creativity, with nine feature films in all. His third, fourth and fifth, released in a space of just thirteen months in 1964 and 1965, make what Lester identified as a trilogy of youthful exuberance and energy: the two Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, either side of the Cannes Palme d’Or-winning The Knack...and How to Get It. These three are key documents in a decade, and a city (London, the setting of much of A Hard Day’s Night and all of The Knack) just beginning to swing. After being hired to make A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Lester then embarked on another three films which comprise a different thematic trilogy. While How I Won the War was in production during the Summer of Love and released later the same year, it catches a sense of disillusionment, a sense that the decade’s dream was already beginning to sour, not least prompted by the Vietnam War which was raging at the time and widely thought unjust. This continued in the surreal post-apocalyptic The Bed Sitting Room and the drama Petulia, which took Lester back to his native USA for the first time in over a decade.
The screenplay is by Charles Wood, who had previously written The Knack, here springboarding from a novel by Patrick Ryan. Wood and Lester had matching sensibilities, both working towards a film which would threaten to explode in all directions at once were it less disciplined. Wood and Lester never let the audience “settle”. With a map on screen at the start, we could be under the impression that we’re about to watch a conventional war movie, but that’s a sense which doesn’t last until the end of the opening credits. Wood and Lester take a lot of inspiration from Brecht, in particular the concept of the “alienation effect”. The intention is to remind the audience that a play, or film, is not another reality to become immersed in but an artifice to be pointed up. Emotional involvement is out, replaced by a distance which enables us to evaluate what we are watching – and in Brecht’s case to draw political conclusions. How I Won the War achieves this by means of direct address to the audience (with early on, one soldier, Drogue (James Cossins) informing us that he died in Africa) and deliberately contrasting acting styles. At one point, Transom (Lee Montague) tells us to look away as another soldier is in distress, and we cut to a cinema where two old ladies (Dandy Nichols and Gretchen Franklin) are watching this. At times, this colour film cuts to tinted monochrome, and recreations of past conflicts (Dieppe, Dunkirk, El Alamein) mixing new footage with newsreel. As one of the men falls in each of these, he continues in the platoon, silent, his face and uniform now the colour of the particular tint. Goodbody is leading a company gradually supplanted by ghosts. Goodbody is no one’s idea of a leader, and his closest confidant is German army officer Odlebog (Karl Michael Vogler).
The alienation effects also feature on the soundtrack, with one sequence featuring canned laughter and Maurice Jarre’s theme from Lawrence of Arabia turning up more than once, as does the Colonel Bogey March which featured in The Bridge on the River Kwai. If David Lean’s films were among this film’s satirical targets, it’s unrecorded what Lean himself made of it, though he was an admirer of Petulia, writing to Lester to tell him so.
At the time, much attention was paid to the casting of second-billed John Lennon as Goodbody’s batman Gripweed. This was the only non-Beatles film Lennon ever made. In an short army haircut and the granny glasses which soon became his trademark, Lennon found the filmmaking process a relief from the increasingly fraught atmosphere of the Beatles at the time. While he was on location in Spain, Lennon continued to write music, most notably his song “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
The cinematographer was David Watkin, who had made his feature debut with The Knack and had then shot Help! Watkin came from a documentary and commercials background and had not followed the traditional path from teaboy up the career ladder that Nicolas Roeg (who shot A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Petulia) had. Watkin was a cinematographer willing to experiment, and worked well with Lester – they made eight features together. In this film Watkin’s work, like Lester’s, covers a variety of registered, from realism to deliberate stylisation, including the tinted monochrome referred to above.
As for top-billed Michael Crawford, Lester had cast him in one of the lead roles in The Knack, and returned to him again here. Many of Crawford’s best roles – including his sitcom stardom as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em nearly a decade later – were beta males. That was the case with The Knack, and is the case here, but Goodbody is a beta in an alpha role and not up to the task, but then again the commanding officers aren’t either. Not for nothing is one of the film's central metaphors a cricket match.
The risk with alienation effects, as Lester later acknowledged, was that you could alienate the audience. And so it proved: How I Won the War was a box office failure. Time has been kind to it, and it stands as one of Lester’s most ambitious films of a very busy decade for him. Certainly not all of it succeeds, but if it’s ultimately a failure it’s a striking one.
How I Won the War is released by the BFI as a dual-format edition. A copy of the Blu-ray was received for review. The film was given a X certificate on release (then, sixteen and over); it is now a 12. The short films in the extras do not appear to have been submitted or resubmitted to the BBFC, but Animated Genesis, A Short Vision and Plod had respectively A, X and A certificates on their original releases.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1. The source does show some minor damage, but nothing distracting. Colours (the different ranges of them) seem true, and the transfer copes with a sequence shot night-for-night near the start.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. This track is as busy audiorially as the film is visually, but the dialogue, music and sound effects are well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing, though I did pick up a number of typos: “grenediers”, “Kyber Pass”, “Arnham” and “bucksheep” (for “buckshee”) among them. The subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras.
The extras begin with a commentary newly recorded by Neil Sinyard, an authority on Lester who previously featured on the disc of The Knack. He begins by admitting that his commentary might be as scattershot as the film, as there are always several things happening at once and he can’t cover them all. There are some quiet spots, but Sinyard’s commentary is thorough and elucidates parts of the film you might miss on a first viewing.
Available on another audio track is an interview with Lester by Steven Soderbergh (88:24), at the National Film Theatre in 1999. As Soderbergh says at the start, this is something of a rematch, as a career-length interview with the now-retired Lester made up the bulk of his book Getting Away With It, published the same year. This is another career overview, though How I Won the War is discussed along the way. As with other recordings of NFT interviews, pauses where appropriate film extracts are shown have been edited out. Towards the end of this hour and a half, Lester answers questions from the audience.
The extras continue with two short animated films which share an anti-war stance. Both are the work of the married couple Joan and Peter Foldes. He was born in Hungary in 1924 but was based in the UK from 1946, starting in the industry by working with fellow Hungarian John Halas before leaving Halas and working in collaboration with his English-born wife. Animated Genesis (22:10) is an allegorical picture of human life from creation to destruction, with human greed represented by a giant spider. The film was shot in 16mm but it impressed another Hungarian expat in the British film industry, Alexander Korda, who gave it a 35mm blow-up and a cinema release. A Short Vision (6:34) is a vision of nuclear holocaust and caused a furore when it was shown on US television in The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. Peter Foldes later moved to Paris where he became a pioneer in computer animation. He died in 1977; Joan, born the same year as him, is still with us as I write this.
Head Rag Hop (3:12), made in 1970, is of its time in a different way. It marries the music track of the title, performed by Romeo Nelson, with rapid fire editing and a riot of Pop Art-influenced imagery in eye-straining Dayglo colours.
Plod (20:37) takes up the satirical theme. This short film from 1971 features The Scaffold, whose act mixed comedy and music, their best-known song “Lily the Pink” being the 1968/69 Christmas Number One. One of the three was Roger McGough, and Plod is based on his poems, which you see him declaiming to screen. The policeman of the title is played by John Gorman, and third member Mike McGear (younger brother of Paul McCartney) turns up in very un-PC guise as a Chinese coolie mixing his Rs and Ls with abandon. This curio was shot in “Vidtronics”, a video-to-film process (it looks it) and was thought to be a lost film for several years.
Two Lester films get the Trailers from Hell treatment: Allan Arkush introduces and discusses the trailer for The Knack (3:55) and John Landis does likewise for The Bed Sitting Room (3:42). Both can be viewed either with the trailer’s original soundtrack or with Arkush’s and Landis’s commentary. Finally on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (4:00).
The first pressing of this release includes the BFI’s usual booklet, which runs to twenty pages. Neil Sinyard appears again with an essay, “This Film is Not Your Friend” Inevitably it covers much the same ground as the commentary – both end with director Mike Hodges’s fan letter to Lester after seeing the film on television in 1991 – but it’s a useful overview of the film’s inception, production and techniques. Ian O’Sullivan looks at 1966 in the life of John Lennon. The booklet also has full film credits and notes and credits on the extras.