OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR (Richard Attenborough, 1969)

This elephantine, star-studded production, based on Joan Littlewood’s theatrical series of satirical antiwar sketches, was actor Richard Attenborough’s official directorial debut. Despite its best film Golden Globe, Oh! What a Lovely War is sufficiently shallow and obtuse that Littlewood had her name removed from the credits. It is a soulless, insufferable, bloated thing.
     A lavish, decorative period piece, it is set during the outbreak and the course of the First World War, but actually takes aim at the Vietnam War, in which Britain was currently involved. The governing metaphor is war as a gigantic game at an amusement park, which Everyfamily—the Smiths—journeys through. Throughout, (now) nostalgic songs arise, culminating in a wide-angle shot of a vast Christian graveyard accompanied by an unseen immemorial chorus: “ . . . and when they ask us how wonderful it was,/ they’ll never believe us,/ they’ll never believe us . . .”
     There is no reason why such material should not have yielded an admirable result; but Attenborough’s infantile compulsion to inflate everything squeezes out all trace of feeling except the bogus affect of sentimentality. Attenborough was Spielberg before Spielberg was Spielberg.
     The British Academy awarded a gratifying prize to Gerry Turpin for his limpid, lovely color cinematography—and a perplexing one to Laurence Olivier for a cameo he might have been tossing off in his sleep. Perhaps Vanessa Redgrave comes off best, fleetingly, as a spirited feminist.

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