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Oh ! What A Lovely War
United Kingdom 1969
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Running time 144 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Richard Attenborough made his directorial debut with this lavish, logistically complex but superbly choreographed satire of World War I that features many of the biggest names in English film at the time, from Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde to Maggie Smith and Sir John Geilgud.

An adaptation of Charles Chilton's 1963 stage play of the same name, it presents The Great War as part music-hall entertainment, part Brighton Pier carny show, part hell, complete with popular songs of the period.  In this respect it is quite an extraordinary achievement, suggesting the kind moving diorama staging that Peter Greenaway would come to specialize in 20 years later. The film does presume at least a general knowledge of the key events of the war in order to make much sense of the schematic narrative which, at best, can only provide a schematic accounmt of the war.  Nevertheless it brings home the key points of its historical setting - imperial Europe and and entrenched class system, both of which would not survive debacle - and the terrible tragedy it was, somewhat surprisingly, as effectively as any traditional anti-war film, thanks to its bitterly black humour.

Whilst being marvellously well done this schema provides what is in effect the plot of the film for there is no story or characters to speak of  in any dramatic sense (although the five sons of the Smith family who appear and re-appear throughout the film, provide a kind of identifiable thread they are not really individuated and characters such Sir Douglas Haig, played wonderfully by John Mills, are more symbolic figures rather than actual individuals). This may frustrate those who find the spectacle in itself insufficient but, despite being a shade too long, it is still a major achievement that remains as good as the day it was made.

           

 

 

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