The great World War One commemoration machine is never far from view. Recently the Battle of Jutland, imminently the Battle of the Somme. So my very first viewing of Richard Attenborough’s film of Oh! What a Lovely War has been of particular interest.
Joan Littlewood’s original production in 1962 has passed into theatre mythology, a huge influence on a generation of political theatre.
However, it has been suggested that, by the time Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969, the show and its style were already a little out of date. The success of The Great War, the 26-part BBC TV documentary with its detailed use of archive photographs and film, plus the less hierarchical social habits which were developing, had spread a more balanced and more critical, less imperialistic and less jingoistic account of the War.
At that time, too, film producers were often employing black and white film to add authenticity to war stories. For instance, in the heroic epic The Longest Day, the small-scale anti-war King and Country and more conventional masculine dramas like The Hill and Guns at Batasi. Did Attenborough ever consider that treatment, one wonders? 30 years later Steven Spielberg talked about how the decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white relieved him of pressure to make such very serious material too commercial. The Angry Silence, the working-class factory drama which Attenborough produced, had certainly benefitted from the use of black and white. But Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first big directing project and he and his co-producers probably felt that colour went hand in hand with the big budget, big stars and a long running time.
It is also interesting to compare Attenborough’s all-star cast with a similar ensemble (including literally many of the same people: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Robert Flemyng, Edward Fox, Susannah York) at exactly the same time in Battle of Britain, a film with a more familiar heroic tone. When people first went to see Oh! What a Lovely War, did they know how different in content and tone was its source material?
I think the film today still comes across as a notable piece of work. The more realistic trench locations blend satisfactorily with the metaphorical one of the seaside pier, which is particularly effective in the interior scenes where the hazy white light backdrops the elite power politics at the start and end of the war. That scene near the end where the solitary infantryman is led along the blood-red tape past the armistice partners and is seen by them as a distraction in their important business is no less powerful for being theatrical. In fact, it actually seems more effective to me than the famous finale of the hundreds of white crosses on the green country hillside. Olivier’s unflattering characterisation of Sir John French neatly foreshadows his last film role as the wheelchair-bound veteran in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem.
The use of period songs as ironic commentary was of course the major part of Oh! What a Lovely War. Songs with simple and sweet arrangements like “Bombed last Night”, “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang” and “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum” came across now as especially effective. Another “what if?” muse: might a jagged, dissonant Kurt Weill-esqe arrangement have been more powerful and more in tune (pun partly intended) with Joan Littlewood’s didactic sardonic staging style?
What I actually didn’t know until very recently was that the whole structure of Littlewood’s show derived from a BBC radio programme by Charles Chilton called The Long Long Trail, which also used period songs to tell the story of the war experience from the perspective of the ordinary soldier.
Oh! What a Lovely War has been revived again in this period of World War One commemoration, apparently still to considerable effect. This demonstrates not just how those Brechtian theatrical devices can still work, but also the astonishing staying power of those popular songs from so long ago.