Seeing the film of Oh What a Lovely War again after thirty-odd years was a bit of a shock. Mind you, I remember being deeply disappointed the first time I saw it. I’d loved the stage show, which I saw in its first production in 1964, when it had moved from Stratford East to Wyndhams Theatre. That was a raucous, unfair and tough-minded political cartoon, with great songs. In comparison, the film seemed slow and respectable.
It certainly tells you more about the 1960s, when it was made, than it does about the Great War. The conversion to film made the show even less historically reliable. The adaptors thought the audience needed identification figures, so they use the rather plonking device of the Smith family, whose male members all enlist and are all killed. The result of this is that one brother enlists in 1914, and then immediately fights in the retreat from Mons. Without training? Hardly likely. They also seem to confuse the Somme and Paschendale in ways that I don’t think the original did. Meanwhile the film allows the audience to infer a great deal that is historically dubious, just as the play did: the battle of the Somme gained the allies nothing; the heroic suffragettes were all pacifists; we only won the war because the Americans joined in; British forces never actually won a battle.
Joan Littlewood didn’t think her creation could be turned into a film, and (amicably) would have nothing to do with it. The property was picked up by John Mills and Richard Attenborough, who had both, of course, been stalwarts of British war films in the forties and fifites (In the rather dull additional material on the new DVD, Attenborough says that they met when filming the Noel Coward/David Lean In Which We Serve. I think I read in a biography of Coward that “Johnny” Mills delighted Coward and his chums by his party trick of setting light to his own farts.) This kind of war film was going out of fashion, and the anti-war film (The Charge of the Light Brigade, How I Won the War) was coming in. I think that these two wanted to join the new wave, in much the same way that Olivier had jumped on the new theatrical bandwagon when he did Osborne’s The Entertainer.
So they took on this unimpeachably new-wave material, by Joan Littlewood, who had all the street-cred that they lacked, on a subject that had been fashionable ever since the BBC Great War documentary series. They roped in other actors from the same war-film background (Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More, Dirk Bogarde) plus a few knights, and set about adapting the material. The wonder is how little they adapted. Most of the stage script is there, apart from a rather dull political scene about profiteers. They added little, except that annoying symbolic family. The changes they made were all about conventions. The original play had used the non-realistic (and quite well-established) techniques of Living Newspaper drama, set in the frame of a pierrot show. This worked brilliantly, because it didn’t get in the way of the action; it added a sort of innocence, and it gave the play a pictorial unity. The film-makers – probably rightly – saw that a pierrot show wouldn’t work on film, so instead they had the bright idea of setting it all in Brighton, mostly on the pier. This worked well to give an Edwardian/Georgian atmosphere, but it encouraged them to go in for all sorts of distractions and gimmicks. At the start of the war, Haig was giving out entry tickets. Why? Kitchener the great recruiter would have been more suitable, but he wasn’t in the original script. There’s a shooting-gallery bit that muffs its point. The assassination of Franz F is done when he’s posing for a photo with the rest of Europe’s royalty, which is odd. All of these are ideas that maybe looked good on paper but, unlike the pierrot costumes, come between the audience and the point that is being made.
Not very well connected with the pier is the cricket scoreboard that occasionally shows casualty figures. Not nearly as effective as the slides and running count of the theatre production. It was clever-clever, whereas the mounting figures of the stage production had a tremendous impact.
Above all, they slowed the action down. The film proceeds at the pedestrian pace of the average fifties British movie – a pace which could work well with screenplays rich in character and psychology, but shows up the thinness of characterisation here. In the theatre, Joan Littlewood’s actors offered speed, agility and the unpredictability of live performance. The audience had the pleasure of watching terrific actors like Victor Spinetti and Howard Goorney switching brilliantly from character to character.
There are some good sequences among the plodding stuff, though – Jean-Pierre Cassel dancing Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser with amazing legs, Maggie Smith doing her recruiting song, and Pia Colombo singing the Chanson de Craonne.
In the bonus interview, Richard Attenborough says that nobody from the original theatrical production was in the film. Not so. Fanny Carby from the Stratford cast is in the film, playing a mill girl. Oh dear, I really am a nerd, aren’t I?