O what a lovely war is masterpiece of satire on the futility of war. Its power as an anti war movie is not in its graphic depiction of war but in its innovative use of surrealism, satire and contrast. Throughout much of the film the tone resembles a popular Music hall performance, yet unobtrusively the film manages to place in sharp contrast the horrors and futility of the conflict. For example the upper class British Generals talk bullishly about the day’s progress but hiding in the background is a cricket scoreboard with the number of dead (60,000) yards gained (0).
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The film makes some very telling points about the divergence between the attitude of those at home and those at the front. For those at home it is easy to maintain a patriotic zeal and enthusiasm for the war. There is a biting scene with an upper class war dodger who proudly states he is “avoiding drinking his German wine” whilst the war is on, as an expression of his support for the war. Those on the front line by contrast often slightly change the words of songs to express their feelings of despair. Yet although the many songs of the soldiers are loaded with irony and satire, they are always sung with the greatest cheerfulness. This only serves to highlight the contrast between their good nature and the futility of their hopeless mission A particularly memorable scene is the Suffragette woman speaking eloquently against the war, only to be mocked by the general public, who fail to appreciate any of her valid points. The scene, as typically, ends in a song with the public singing “Land of Hope and Glory” A patriotic song to drown out the pacifist criticism.
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Apart from the opening sequences, which show the early moves to war, the film moves at a breathtaking speed. There is always something new happening, (and some famous actor to spot). The film also has a delicious black humour. Some new soldiers are being brought up to the front where they meet some laid back Australians. “Where are you going?” ask the Australians” “Wipers”
“O you don’t want to go there.”
“Why not ?”
“There’s a shortage.”
“What of ammunition?”
“no coffins.” – Australian soldiers roll around laughing
A resounding theme is the contrast between the blundering (Upper class) Generals and the soldiers who experience the deprivations and consequences of their Generals blunderings. The incompetence of the Generals is only magnified by their pomposity and almost arrogance. Their prayers to God are particularly revealing. They run along the lines of something like “Dear God, please bless our onslaught tomorrow.”
“Grant us victory, O Lord, before the Americans get here.” This conflict between the two is no more poignantly expressed than in the Christmas truce of 1914. It was a memorable event in the history of the First World War, men from both sides spontaneously laying down their arms to meet in no man’s land and share presents. On hearing about this later, the officers back at HQ are unexpectedly furious about the “weakening of men’s stomach for the fight”.
There are many other scenes, writing a review you realize how much detail the director Richard Attenborough managed to put into this short film. Never sermonising or preaching it becomes a memorable testimony to both man’s good nature and also capacity for stupidity and suffering. The final scene with the endless series of crosses is a fitting and emotional end to a marvelous film.