How I Won The War Review

For a period of roughly five years in the 1960s, Richard Lester’s frenetic and somewhat undisciplined style of filmmaking was among the most fashionable things in cinema. Following the failure of one of his best films, the awesomely bleak The Bed-Sitting Room, Lester didn’t work for four years and despite individual successes – the Musketeers films and his contributions to the Superman series – he has never recaptured his initial popularity. The Lester style has not dated well and there’s a case for saying that it was never particularly special to begin with but at their best, his films have immense vitality which, along with good use of familiar actors, makes them very watchable. Sadly, How I Won The War isn’t one of his more impressive works. Despite sporting, very much on its sleeve, an admirable sentiment – that war is hell – its intent on bludgeoning the audience into submission, along with a totally unnecessary level of narrative confusion, renders it a good deal less than the sum of its parts.

Beginning in the Rhine in 1944, the film deals with the memoirs of Lieutenant Ernest Goodbody (Crawford), a naive and hopelessly optimistic young officer who is given command of the Third Troop of the Fourth Musketeers. Goodbody’s memories are told to the German platoon that has captured him and the film unfolds as a complicated series of overlapping flashbacks. He has the greatest regard for the men under his command but this is not reciprocated by the troops who consider him to be a “bleedin’ idiot”. Matters are not improved by the unit’s first mission; to venture behind enemy lines in North Africa and set up a cricket pitch in order to impress a visiting VIP. In this, Goodbody and his men are accompanied by the mildly deranged senior officer Grapple (Hordern) and become slowly involved in the horrors of war through a series of gross misjudgements, bad luck and blackly ironic circumstances.

Charles Wood, who wrote How I Won The War, has been revisiting this basic material throughout the rest of his career and perhaps found the most effective balance between irony and tragedy in the 1988 BBC film Tumbledown. The impact of that drama was enhanced by the fact that the Falklands War was itself a blackly comic joke. One could make a similar argument for his script for the 1968 Charge of the Light Brigade, where the basic absurdity of the war in which Britain was engaged added a good deal to his comments on class, war and heroism. One could easily apply something similar to the First World War when millions of young men really did die for nothing. However, trying to apply these sentiments to the Second World War is a more problematic task; especially if, like Wood, you don’t have any constructive answers to the important question of how we were meant to stop the Nazi domination of Europe without going to war. Given that the SS would have quite happily extended their activities throughout the remainder of the West, sending millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and anyone else who didn’t fit in with the big picture, to their deaths, I’m not sure that the attempts of the Allies to stop Germany can be treated in this kind of surreal, satirical and essentially flippant framework .Instead of engaging with the issues of fighting tyranny with aggression, Wood engages in a kind of comic nihilism in which nothing is sacred because everything is ludicrous. Even death is seen as an absurd joke played by an uncaring god – and the dead men live on, painted in various shades of pink and blue, to comment sardonically on their position. Given this device, which is distancing, Richard Lester goes on to abstract matters even further by presenting the fictional deaths alongside heartbreaking and horrifying documentary footage from various skirmishes of World War 2. It’s a nasty device, a trick played on the audience to persuade them that this series of crass revue sketches adds up to a serious satirical comment on warfare.

I don’t respond well to having my emotions messed about with in this manner. It’s not easy to watch documentary footage of the horrors of war without an emotional response and this then gets mixed up with one’s feelings about the surrounding film. It strikes me as a cop-out for a director and writer who can’t get the audience to care about the fates of their fictional characters. It’s not impossible, of course, to create a situation in which each character is vividly defined as an individual so that their deaths hit us on a deeper level than we might expect – that’s exactly what Peckinpah achieved in both The Wild Bunch and his own musing on the horror of war, Cross of Iron. But I think Lester gets confused by his motives here. He was quoted at the time as wanting to “present war without kicks”. But what he actually does – by using narrative trickery and blue-tinted monochrome – is to heighten the sense of artificiality and distract us from the meaning of what we’re watching. Ably assisted by Wood, he’s thought himself into a corner – war is absurd but war is horrifying, so the more absurd we make it, the more horrifying it will be. But nothing he invents can compete with the documentary footage of Dunkirk and Alamein for getting across his basic message. Perhaps aware of this, he and Wood retreat into timid satire of the English class system but even this is heavy handed and was done much better in Wood’s script for Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s possible (and probable) that a comment on the Vietnam War was also intended (and maybe even Suez). But since the film is so intellectually unsophisticated in what it’s saying, even if its done in a cinematically sophisticated way, I don’t think this is particularly significant.

In these circumstances, it’s no surprise that the film dissolves in the mind as soon as it finishes. It’s not all bad, certainly. When Lester and Wood focus on pastiche of the conventions of war films, the film works quite well with the expected stereotypes bayoneted with some precision. There are also nice digs at Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge On The River Kwai. The performances are always enthusiastic and sometimes very funny. Michael Hordern could probably have played the role of a mad old bastard in his sleep, but he’s irresistibly comic when ranting about the “Wily Pathan” whom the British Empire is apparently always fighting. There are also nice bits from familiar faces like James Cossins – “I die in North Africa” he proudly keeps telling us – and Lee Montague. But Jack McGowran is allowed to go completely over the top as the strait-jacket bound entertainer of the group – “working his ticket” as Montague says – and Roy Kinnear’s fine comic talents go to waste in a role which encourages him to be maudlin rather than manic.

But the biggest problems in the cast are the two leads. Michael Crawford is a very appealing personality and he grits his teeth and goes through a series of demeaning slapstick pratfalls with impressive dedication. But he’s not a strong screen actor and his comic persona seems scaled for television. When he’s at the centre of a scene you tend to look for something else on which to focus your attention. The problem with John Lennon is slightly different – quite simply, he’s John Lennon and the sardonic character he plays isn’t sufficiently different to his real life persona to make him convincing as Goodbody’s batman Gripweed. At the end, he addresses the camera and it’s hard to separate character from personality. Nor is he an actor; his dialogue delivery is wooden and he looks very pleased with himself every time he gets a halfway decent line.

When Lester’s style is working – as it does in The Knack or even in the two Beatles movies – then there’s a joyous sense of release from cinematic convention and an energy which overrides one’s reservations about the material. But here, it never catches fire. The flashbacks and forwards are confusing and sometimes irrelevant and the flippancy with which Lester treats his characters sits uneasily with the supposed seriousness of the film’s intentions. Towards the end, the scene changes from Africa to Europe and it’s so abrupt that you initially feel that cuts may have rendered the film incoherent. The tone changes from comedy to tragedy and back to comedy without the skill that such shifts require if they are to make us care. By the end of How I Won The War, we feel numbed and exhausted but not, as we should be, shocked or moved. The documentary snippets have more power than the 100 minutes of film which surround them. I presume that this wasn’t the point.

The Disc

MGM’s release of this film conforms to their recent pattern of not caring a damn about the majority of their back catalogue. A halfway decent visual transfer and adequate soundtrack are presented in such a slipshod manner that I felt vaguely insulted.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It’s not a bad transfer. Colours are strong and there is plenty of detail. No serious issues with excessive grain or artefacting. However, the lack of anamorphic enhancement is a drawback, as is the amount of minor print damage which is present.

The soundtrack is the original mono mix and is very good. Dialogue is clear and the sound effects have reasonable punch without drowning out the rest of the track. The film is subtitled in a number of languages.

The film is, as usual for MGM, divided into 16 chapters. The menus are messy and offer us a series of icons which I found more confusing than helpful. Why MGM feel they can’t offer us, at the very least, the words “Play Movie” is a mystery to me. Another mystery is why they’ve stopped including the theatrical trailers which made their earlier back catalogue releases a little more enticing. I know that MGM can do better than this so it's about time they began sharpening up their act.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:20:06

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