It was the War to end all wars – well not quite. For with the ricochet of one bullet, the entire course of human history was changed forever...Now, for the first time, Academy Award®-winner Richard Attenborough’s* directorial debut is available on DVD. Based on the stage musical by the same name, Oh! What a Lovely War features a stellar cast that includes Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm, Dirk Bogarde and Susannah York. By fusing the surreal with the factual and juxtaposing savagely funny satire with quiet sorrow, Attenborough has created the oddest and most outstanding film ever made about the "game" that became World War One.
It's a product of its Vietnam era just as surely as Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, and like that film Oh! What a Lovely War is ostensibly about a different war. Based on a celebrated anti-war stage piece produced by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, the film chronicles the various madnesses of the First World War. Along with vignettes involving the members of the fictional Smith family, the movie lands its punches with a two-pronged attack: by using the songs of the war, mostly patriotic; and by using the real-life words of various figures from WWI. You can see how this would have fit a stylized stage show; in the more literal, realistic realm of film, it mostly comes across as heavy-handed pretentiousness. Richard Attenborough, who would later explore the lives of Gandhi and Chaplin, first made his way to the director's chair here, and he enlisted a staggering who's who of his fellow British actors for roles in the large ensemble: Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson among them. John Mills plays the most bull-headed of the generals, blithely measuring out yards of territory gained by the thousands of casualties involved. The songs are a historically fascinating lot, mostly given an ironic or sinister treatment in this incarnation, as jolly patriotic tunes that mask the utter carnage at the front. Among the high points is Maggie Smith singing (well, declaiming) an ode to recruitment, promising war as a grand adventure. The blending of arch content with Attenborough's realistic staging of trench warfare just doesn't take, but what does hit home are the actual quotes and the statistics of killing; World War I set a bloody standard for sheer, blind slaughter. --Robert Horton