WAR ON FILM – Oh! What a Lovely War

9 mins read

MOVIE POSTERRichard Attenborough’s 1969 BAFTA award winning film Oh! What a Lovely War has many similarities to the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop musical of 1963. There is the powerful use of the popular satirical war songs, the sense of choreography, the use of documentary information to counterpoint the burlesque, and the passionate anti-war message. But there are many differences as well.

Joan Littlewood could not bare the colour khaki and refused to have any of her characters in anything resembling an army uniform so all the performers appeared in pierrot costumes. The virulent attack on the class system in the Theatre Workshop version becomes a clichéd depiction of generals and staff officers as a set of buffoons in the film.

Oh! What a Lovely War is certainly of its time and tells us as much about the 1960s as it does about the First World War. But just as the original Theatre Workshop production tried to explain and understand the war 50 years after its start, it is certainly worth looking at it again as we run up to the centenary of the war. It seems extraordinary that the original theatre production is as far distant from today as the declaration of war in 1914 was when the Theatre Workshop first staged the musical.

The originator of both stage musical and film was a BBC radio presenter and producer. Charles Chilton joined the BBC as a messenger boy before the Second World War and went on to present Swing Time and a series of radio documentaries about American music. He produced episodes of The Goon Show and a science fiction series called Journey Into Space.

Chilton had never known his father who died in the First World War, and in 1961 became fascinated with his father’s story. He discovered a book of songs called Tommy’s Tunes published in 1917 in which the words of popular songs of the day had been adapted by the soldiers. From this he produced a radio programme called The Long, Long Trail. In 1962 Gerry Raffles, the partner of Joan Littlewood, heard the programme and thought there was the basis of a stage production in it.

Generals as villains

Littlewood was not convinced at first but with a group of talented young actors put together a script that was highly satirical, choreographing scenes as though in a seaside show, connected by authentic wartime images and statistics projected on to a screen.

Much of this came from Alan Clark’s recent book The Donkeys in which he presented the generals as the villains of the war, ordering men to their death by the hundred thousand, and invented the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’.

When Oh What a Lovely War (with no exclamation mark) opened in March 1963 it was an instant success, and after a couple of months it transferred to the West End and later to Broadway.

The First World War had been out of fashion for nearly a quarter of century since the beginning of the Second World War. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a rediscovery of the Great War with Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory in 1958 (see MHM 41), Alan Clark’s best-selling book The Donkeys, and then Theatre Workshop’s satirical musical. There was also a major revival of interest in the wartime poets and particularly in Wilfred Owen, whose poetry became a central voice for the generation that fought and fell in the war.

In 1964, the new television channel BBC2 was launched with the 26 part series The Great War. This was the first ever television history series that featured the voices of ordinary front line soldiers. Although not many people had the new aerials needed to view it on 625 lines on BBC2, when it was repeated later in the year on BBC1 it is said that pubs emptied on Wednesday nights as men rushed home to see the series.

The First World War was not only popular once again, but the prevailing view of the 1960s was that it had been a futile and worthless struggle, a tragedy of immense human proportions acted out in the mud and horror of the trenches, for which the stubborn generals were largely to blame. It is a view that has been revised considerably over the last 20 or 30 years.

Richard Attenborough directing John Mills.
Richard Attenborough directing John Mills.

Richard Attenborough is one of the legendary figures of British cinema and had starred in countless popular movies. Oh! What a Lovely War (with the exclamation mark after Oh) was his directorial debut, aged 45.

He got funding from Paramount who had just been acquired by Gulf and Western and who were pumping money into the company. Being himself one of the top British movie stars, he called in favours from many close friends who agreed to appear in his film.

Star-studded cast

First to agree was Laurence Olivier. Then came Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, John Mills, and Kenneth More. With such luminaries committed, Paramount’s enthusiasm for the venture grew and Attenborough was able to raise a substantial budget for his first film as director. He decided to shoot most of the film in Brighton and filming began in March 1968.

Following the concept of setting the stage musical in a seaside show, much of the film was shot at Brighton’s West Pier that was taken over, restored and repainted (sadly it is now derelict).

The opening scenes see the leaders of Europe posing for a photograph. Ralph Richardson plays Sir Edward Grey; John Gielgud the Austrian Count Berchtold; Ian Holm President Poincaré; and Kenneth More Kaiser Wilhelm.

When the camera ‘shoots’ the picture, Archduke Ferdinand and his wife fall dead. The European leaders pace around a map of Europe, acting out the process by which Europe went to war in a matter of weeks partly as a result of political alliances and partly because once military mobilisation had begun it appeared impossible to stop it.

The film cuts to the Brighton Promenade where a band marches along and enthusiastic crowds flock in to West Pier where a show is about to begin called ‘World War One’. General Haig (played by John Mills) sells the tickets and we are introduced to the many members of the Smith family whose story provides the spine of the film.

What follows is a series of pantomime sequences on the Pier intercut with naturalistic scenes from the trenches. Broadly speaking the film moves chronologically through the war beginning with dancing French marionettes, all of whom are massacred by German machine guns.

Then follows a great satire on the recruitment process of 1914 with the Smith family packed into a music hall watching a show in which a group of girl dancers sing, ‘We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.’ Then Maggie Smith enters as the young and glamourous lead with her own recruitment song ‘On Saturday I’m willing, if you’ll only take the Shilling, to make a man of any one of you’.

Next, a recruiting sergeant marches on stage and calls on young men in the audience to come forward. All the males in the Smith family enthusiastically rush on stage and Maggie Smith, now in close-up looking like an over made-up prostitute, hands them over to the recruiting sergeant who marches them off bawling, ‘You horrible little men’.

We are then in the run-up to the battle of Mons with Laurence Olivier as Sir John French, the c-in-c of the British Expeditionary Force, in the back of a staff car with Michael Redgrave as Sir Henry Wilson.

Olivier only has a small part in the film but he hams it up wildly, in this scene telling Wilson that they must not worry about the French generals as they all come from ‘trade’ and in any case no one can understand what they say as they speak a strange language.

The battle of Mons takes place, the wounded return to Waterloo station, and there are several opportunities for many memorable songs including, ‘We’re here because we’re here’ and ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’. A cheerful nurse tells a horribly wounded soldier ‘Don’t worry, we’ll soon have you back at the front’.

Christmas Truce

There is a scene in which war profiteers are portrayed at a Christmas party. ‘We’re hoping to get the contract, tin hats you know’ says Dirk Bogarde to Susannah York. They look at fireworks which transition to the trenches, where the German troops sing ‘Silent Night’ and the Scottish troops respond with the ‘It was Christmas Day in the workhouse’ variant of ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’.

A battle scene from the film.

On Christmas Day itself, the Germans slowly appear in a snowy No Man’s Land. One by one the Scottish troops get out of their trenches too. For a brief moment they swap schnapps, whisky, and cigars and realise they are all suffering together in the war. Then a set of shell bursts send both sides running back to their lines. The scene is presented in a slow, cautious way and is entirely believable as a depiction of the famous Christmas Truce.

Back to the pantomime with Bertie Smith (Corin Redgrave) joining up as an officer, prompting the song ‘Brother Bertie went away, to do his bit the other day’ performed on a seaside toy train. His mother is left waiting on a real railway station mourning the departure of her fifth son for the war.

Back in the trenches the men are suffering gas attacks while the senior commanders are plotting among themselves as Haig takes over from French as commander-in-chief.

John Mills as Sir Douglas Haig is one of the central characters in the film. He is seen as an idiot, blind to the mounting losses that are constantly put up at headquarters on a cricket scoreboard. He is inspired by a blinkered religious faith and a belief that the Allies can win an attritional war, claiming, ‘The loss of another 300,000 men will lead to really great results’ and, ‘In the end the enemy will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000 men and we will have won.’

Lines like these would certainly have had a resonance at the height of the Cold War when American generals were occasionally accused of uttering similar thoughts with regard to nuclear war.

But there is no historical reality in this pantomime portrayal of Sir Douglas Haig who had a clear understanding of what it took to win an industrial war against a determined and skilled fighting machine like the German army. In one scene Haig is seen leading a parade while his staff officers gyrate behind him to the song, ‘One staff officer jumped right over another staff officer’s back’. It’s very amusing and plays to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ approach to the First World War but is hardly historical.

Satire meets emotion

There are many other powerful scenes in the film. Vanessa Redgrave plays Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a crowd outside a munitions factory calling for the war’s end and is shouted down.

A chaplain (Gerald Sim) preaches a sermon for victory on the eve of the next Big Push and announces that it is no sin to soldier on a Sunday. This provides one of the most poignant scenes in which the choir sings the hymn, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’ while a lone soldier (Maurice Arthur) sings movingly in counterpart, ‘When this lousy war is over’.

By this point of both stage musical and film there is rarely a dry eye in the house. Elizabeth Smith, one of the daughters of the central family, a nurse beautifully played by Angela Thorne, now prepares hospital beds for the arrival of the dreadfully butchered wounded as soon as the new offensive starts.

There are many naturalistic scenes shot in the trenches, all filmed at the Brighton municipal rubbish dump where the smell was horrendous. It no doubt helped create the right atmosphere. Men are seen dying in no-man’s-land while the scoreboard at GHQ notches up 607,000 losses on the Somme, with ‘Gains Nil’.

There are several more songs which get darker, including, ‘The Bells of Hell go Ting-a-ling-a-ling’ and, ‘If you want to find the old Battalion, I know where they are…I’ve seen ‘em, hanging on the old barbed wire.’

The famous final scene with a vast field of crosses.
The famous final scene with a vast field of crosses.

In the final sequence, Jack Smith (Paul Shelley), the last of the Smith boys, finds himself back in Mons in November 1918 ‘right where we started’. Jack follows a red tape past the European leaders who are signing the Armistice and into poppy filled fields.

The last famous scene has the women of the Smith family in white dresses moving through an immense field of crosses laid out in neat rows across the South Downs. From a helicopter, the camera pulls out to an aerial view of lines of endless crosses filling the screen as ghostly voices sing, ‘We’ll Never Tell Them’. There were 16,000 crosses used in the shot. It is an appropriately cinematic ending to the film.

Joan Littlewood apparently never liked Attenborough’s film. Certainly it lacks the bite of the political satire in the original. The first half of the Theatre Workshop production was ebullient and cheery. The second half was dark, sombre, playing on the idea of the lost innocence of the soldiers and was highly critical of generals and politicians. The film is more linear, playing on immediate contradictions from one scene to the next, from the jollity of the pier-end show to the horrors in the trenches.

It still has much to commend it but it very much reflects a 1960s view of the Great War. As it was being made, the war in Vietnam was escalating dreadfully. The film capitalises on the anti-war sentiment generated by Vietnam and a general hostility to senior military figures in the Cold War.

For anyone unfamiliar with the First World War the film still provides a dramatic, entertaining, and highly emotive introduction to the conflict. But it is not real history and never pretended to be. Its strength is in its searing emotional appeal. And with the appalling scale of the killing between 1914 and 1918, there is nothing wrong with that.

This article appeared in issue 46 of Military History Monthly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.