Saturday, August 20, 2016

Stubs – How I Won the War (1967)

How I Won the War (1967) Starring Michael Crawford, John Lennon, Roy Kinnear, Lee Montague. Directed by Richard Lester. Screenplay by Charles Wood. Based on the novel How I Won the War by Patrick Ryan (London, 1963). Produced by Richard Lester. Color. United Kingdom War, Comedy, Drama

In the autumn of 1966, after The Beatles had stopped touring and before they entered the studio to record what would become their landmark album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, John Lennon took some time to make a movie. This would not be a Beatle’s first solo venture into filmmaking, Paul McCartney had written the soundtrack for The Family Way (1966), but this would be the first time one of them had appeared on the big screen without the other three.

How I Won the War would reunite Lennon with Richard Lester, the director who had helmed A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), so there had to be a sense of trust built up between the two of them. When Lester called, John was probably all too willing to do the film. The difference this time, and perhaps for the first time since the Beatles had conquered America in 1964, a Beatle would not get top billing; Lennon’s name would be second on the billing block.

John Lennon gets second billing, but Michael Crawford is the star.

The distinction of the star of the film would go to actor Michael Crawford. For anyone of a certain age, Crawford is best known for originating the role of the Phantom in the epically successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom of the Opera, which would make Crawford an International superstar. But in 1967, he was a relative unknown and his fame was dwarfed by Lennon’s. However, he had worked with Lester previously as well, in The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), the director’s first film after A Hard Day’s Night. The Knack had been a bigger success in the UK than it had been in the U.S.

Shot in Germany and Spain during the fall of 1966, How I Won the War would also use a fair amount of stock footage from World War II, the setting for the film. The story is told as a flashback by Lt. Ernest Goodbody (Crawford), now a middle-aged veteran, who speaks fondly of his contributions to the war effort.

Goodbody, who is eager to fight, is given his first command by General Grapple (Michael Hordern) who after lecturing Goodbody about the threat of the "wily Pathan" (an ethnic group on the Indian subcontinent), gives him the assignment to set up an advance cricket pitch behind enemy lines even though Goodbody lacks higher education and a sense of leadership.

An injured soldier's wife shows up on the battlefield.

His company, Third Troop of the Fourth Musketeers, is a lackluster group made up of Clapper (Roy Kinnear), an overweight inductee who is preoccupied by his wife's supposed infidelity; Gripweed (John Lennon), a dispirited Cockney; Juniper (Jack MacGowran), the designated fool, who sometimes appears in clown face; the Melancholy Musketeer (Jack Hedley), a coward; and Sgt. Transom (Lee Montague), the only regular soldier, who tries to cover up Goodbody's many mistakes.

Sgt. Transom is the only regular soldier in the outfit.

Through a comedy of errors, the troop manages to make a nearly unrecognizable cricket pitch on uneven ground and with crooked lines. After that, they are sent to France and onto Germany, all along the way, there are battles, much of it actual war footage which is tinted. Goodbody soldiers are killed in each battle, but even in death they continue to march along, though now they are monochromatic, in a color that matches the tinted footage. This pattern continues to repeat itself until all the soldiers under Goodbody’s command, save one, is killed, including Gripweed.

Alone, Goodbody is captured near the Rhine by the Germans. He relates, in a flashback within a flashback, his version of events to German officer Commandant Odlebog (Karl Michael Vogler), who is himself more artist than warrior.

Even Hitler makes an appearance in How I Won The War.

Odleblog, who finds the idea of war quite inhumane, is simply following orders. He ends up in control of one of the last intact bridges, which he hopes to sell to the Allies. But in the end, Odlebog ends up under the business end of a tank navigated by Grapple, who makes a rather inexplicable reappearance. 

The one remaining soldier from Goodbody’s unit ends up being Melancholy Musketeer, the unit's persistent deserter. It is Melancholy which a now middle-aged Goodbody ends up reminiscing with at the Fourth’s reunion.

Having seen a fair number of Richard Lester films, I can honestly say that while he is usually spot on, there are the occasional miscues, as there are with any director. How I Won the War falls into the miss category. Obviously, Lester’s not a director who is afraid to take risks and try various techniques, but sometimes you can try too hard. I have not read the novel, but it is my understanding that it is more subtle than the film in trying to get its message across about the pointlessness of war. Subtle is not a word to use to describe How I Won the War. This is more like a cacophony of film styles mixed into one. Multiple characters talk directly to the camera; there are flashbacks within flashbacks; heavy symbolism with those who have died still being Goodbody’s responsibility; and rather absurdist characters, including one who dresses for a time in blackface.

There seems to me, the casual viewer, that there are certain films from this time period (the mid-1960s) that seem to revel in being nonsequitur and hard to follow. Films like Casino Royale (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and Head (1968) come to mind as being chaotic and incoherent. These sort of films, though quite a departure from the tried and true Hollywood film which brought the viewer into the dream-like world and guided them through the story to the conclusion, rarely work. To paraphrase PDQ Bach, who said in reference to concert notes in the program that you can’t read once the lights are turned down, these films leave the viewer “in a confused slumber.” There must have been something in the water back then that allowed these films to be greenlit, produced and released. I wonder what that could have been.

Michael Crawford, at this point in his career, reminds me more of Peter Noone, the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits (another 60s British pop band) than the menacing Phantom of the Opera he would become famous for. It’s hard to judge anyone’s acting abilities in this kind of movie, though I will say Crawford does have a certain likable presence.

Crawford plays Lt. Ernest Goodbody

Despite his second billing, John Lennon really only has a very small part in the film. The Gripweed character, like most of those in the film, is sketchy at best. Goodbody, early on, says how important Gripweed is to his composing his memoirs, but Gripweed is killed before the war is over. I’m not sure when I first saw the film, if it was before or after the incident on December 8, 1980, but there is something about seeing Lennon shot and killed on the screen that is disturbing. Maybe it’s me, but it seems, of course in retrospect, to hit very close to home.

Lennon plays Gripweed.

The most notable thing that came out of this film as far as Lennon was concerned, was that while he stayed in Almeria he rented a villa with such lush vegetation surrounding it that it reminded him of the Salvation Army garden near his childhood home in Liverpool. He was thus inspired to write the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” during the filming.

Roy Kinnear stands out, mostly because he was a familiar face from Help!, as well as other Lester films. Considered a fat man then, Kinnear’s weight plays into much of the humor surrounding his character.

Roy Kinnear is a familiar face from the Beatles film Help!

Jack MacGowran’s Juniper character stands out, but mostly for his lunacy. I’ve never heard this mentioned, perhaps because this is a “foreign” film, but his appearance in blackface seemed to go without protest, while similar scenes in Yankee Doodle Dandy were removed for a time due to racism concerns. While a song and dance sequence might be excised rather easily, removing Juniper’s character from How I Won the War would have been much more difficult. It’s not that I was offended by the display, poetic license and all, but surprised by it is more to the point.

Of the other characters, Lee Montague’s performance as the only regular Army man in the Musketeers is also very good. He stands out in the cast. Karl Michael Vogler as the artistic German officer with whom Goodbody shadows is also very good.

A note about prints of the film; for some reason some eliminate the tinting of the war scenes. Apparently this is true with the one shown on Turner Classic Movies, not the version watched for this review. Interesting since that would have been serviced by the same company that owns the film, MGM. Honestly, it took me reading about the film to understand the connection between a soldier appearing in green from head to toe and the previous green tinted war footage, without the tinting, the soldier's appearance in pastel colors would seem even more surreal then it already is. With the tinting, there is at least some connection to the colors.

Dead soldiers continue to appear in pastel colors from head to toe.

How I Won the War is obviously intended as an anti-war film and was one of the first of this type to come out in the mid to late 1960s. The problem is that its message is somewhat muddled by its story-telling techniques that seem more bent on losing the viewer rather than helping them to reach a conclusion.

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