Even the most “just” war has its protest. Beyond the ‘might’ and ‘right’ on one’s side, the notion of killing another human being for political or social gain struggles against inherent notions of morality and common decency. Of course, the more ridiculous the cause, the more vocal the outcry. During the ’60s, the “police action” known as Vietnam stirred outrage worldwide.
While almost exclusively America’s burden to bear, others felt the fallout and decided to respond. In true sovereign style, the British came up with a couple of “classic” black comedies, each one managing to comment equally on the nation’s own clueless colonialism and equally out-of-touch class hierarchy. Of the two, the dark dancehall musical Oh! What a Lovely War was/is seen as a success. Even decades later, Richard Lester’s How I Won the War is viewed as a flailing Fab Four curiosity, at best.
There are many reasons for such a dichotomy. Sir Richard Attenborough, a serious filmmaker with equally esteemed credits to his name, took the sparkling theatrical production that Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop created in 1963 and opened it up, using scope and size (and a healthy dose of every great British actor of the era) to bring the pointlessness of organized aggression to the fore. For his part, Lester was limited in both ability and approach. Wanting to take the absurdist, non-sequitor style of the Beatles’ Help! another step further, he recruited reigning pop phenomenon John Lennon, gathered together a familiar company of complicit performers, and headed out into the Spanish desert to rake the UK officer corps across the comic coals.
Though based on the semi-straight novel by journalist and author Patrick Ryan, Charles Wood’s script for How I Won the War (long out of print, now back on DVD thanks to MGM’s DV-R based Collection) became the ultimate inside joke – a string of common English army sentiments stitched together to form an even more insular sort of ‘comic’ insanity. As he had done in Help!, Wood worked through and around expectations to perfect a kind of creative abstract – audiences would initially understand what was going on, even if they really couldn’t comprehend what was being said and/or suggested. Along with Lester’s unusual directorial splashes – characters dying off in tinted newsreel recreations, their character’s coming back as ‘ghosts’ colored the same way, lines of dialogue draped over each other like blankets from the material’s true meaning – How I Won the War wanted to be wacky and irreverent. Sadly, it comes across as weird and irrelevant 40-some years later.
The story centers on Lieutenant Earnest Goodbody (Michael Crawford), a “grammar schoolboy” who signs up to be an officer in His Majesty’s armed service. Mentored by a wily Commander and given the mission of building a cricket pitch deep behind enemy lines, our inept hero is then put in charge of a ragtag group of rabble-rousers. They include unit “thief” and conscience Gripweed (Lennon), a roly-poly married man Clapper (Roy Kinnear), no nonsense Sergeant Transom (Lee Montague), depressed statistic in waiting Drogue (James Cossins), petulant whiner Spool (Ronald Lacey) and a slightly unhinged “General”, Juniper (Jack MacGowran). Along the way, there are skirmishes with machinery, run-ins with the enemy, disloyalty in the ranks, and general incompetence that leads to a sense of mutiny in Goodbody’s men.
There are moments in How I Won the War that match anything done in British comedy before or since. You can see the outlines for such noted UK humor fests as Monty Python and Blackadder in the fabric of this unwieldy weapons-grade farce. Of course, said shows and showcases did this kind of thing so, so much better, believing that a more universal attitude toward the material would allow them a chance to really zing the specific targets. Here, Lester’s brainy burlesque fails to fully resonate, and it’s not hard to see – or hear – why. Confusing conversations sound like excerpts from a half-heard fox hole rant, with punchlines pulled directly out of a career man’s companion. Scenes fail to form together to gel into a coherent whole, and the many meaningful messages seem purposely subverted so that the viewer has to look extra hard to find them.
Then there is the distracting presence of Lennon amongst the rest of the crackerjack company. Make no mistake about it -the Beatle was and remains to this day an icon, a pinnacle of personality and presence, and he is very, very good as Gripweed. But just like any project which brings on a much larger-than-life figure to fill in the gaps, Lennon threatens to overwhelm the proceedings. Even in the home video afterlife, a Limited Edition photo book from the film (available alongside the new DVD) features almost nothing but candid photos of the former mop-top. War would come to define the post-Mania Lennon, inspiring an always simmering social consciousness and resulting in the image of the artist we have today. Even Yoko Ono, writing in the tome’s preface, argues that the round glasses and army helmet portrait helped define her husband and his activist stance for the next decade.
Still, there is a lot to like here. Crawford, completely outmanned and outmatched, jitters around like a bug about to be squashed, offering a vision of Goodbody which coincides with every portrait of an out of place officer ever. Kinnear is also excellent, bringing a nice nuttiness to his role as a cuckolded (?) husband. Sure, both Cossins and Lacey can get on your nerves, and the moment MacGowran shows up in black face (sans any attempt at an accent, thankfully), Lester’s motives become very, very muddled, but his energy and verve remain intact. The “army men” motif is used to wonderful effect and the overall attitude is slapstick and vaudevillian. The look of the film – preserved well by recent digital remasters – is both realistic and ridiculous, using the arid backdrop as a means of counterpointing later sequences in a German HQ.
That it doesn’t all come together as the way Oh! What a Lovely War (or M*A*S*H, or even Catch 22) did remains one of many sticking points to further appreciation. Those expecting side-splitting laughs are often left feeling outside the funny fray. For Lester, it would mark the end of his reign as cinematic radical, though efforts like Petulia, The Bed-Sitting Room, The Three/Four Musketeers, and Superman II would keep his name among the who’s who for a few more years – and it’s a shame. While never a genius at choosing appropriate material (ever see his version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?), How I Won the War is perhaps the best example of his aesthetic. It shows who Richard Lester is, for better and worse. It also argues that all anti-war efforts don’t always get their point across.