Back in 1963 Joan Littewood, a driving force in London alternate theatre, and her company tackled World War I. Oh What A Lovely War took it title from a song of the period and using other songs, letters and historical facts it traced the trajectory of death from 1914 to 1918. Littlewood staged her show as a sea side Pierrot entertainment with the death tolls continually being toted up on a cricket score board. It was as much a bitter satire of war in general as the Great War to End All Wars.
In 1969 Richard Attenborough decided to try his hand at film directing and choose Oh What a Lovely War as his first film. Filming at Brighton Pier, a garbage dump in Eastbourne and in the Sussex Downs and keeping many of the conceits from Littlewood’s stage production including the infamous score board he created a film as critical of the on-going Vietnam War as it was of World War I.
Most of the established English acting community rallied to support “Dickie” who most of them had worked with in one way or another since 1942. John Mills, Michael Redgrave and Laurence Oliver played major roles, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde, John Clements, Jack Hawkins (stricken with throat cancer he offered to play a silent Emperor Franz Josef,) Susanna York, Ian Holm, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Maggie Smith all make cameo appearances in vignettes of life on the home-front and in the trenches.
One of the most disturbing scenes is Maggie Smith’s (yes we’re on a theme here this week) turn as a Music Hall star using her wiles to conscript young men into the army. Pauline Kael referred to her performance as being “all lure with no allure.” Watch for the not-so subtle change in make-up but subtle change in attitude when she pulls a young man up onto the stage.
I saw the film on my first trip to London back in 1969 at the Odeon Leicester Square and it immediately became one of my favorites. I watched it again last night on DVD and almost 40 years later it still remains a fascinating piece of film making and a burning indictment of war.
02 aprile – San Franceso di Padua