Oh! What a Lovely War - 1969

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The plot

A screen adaptation of the well-known stage play, this is a mix of fact-based drama and fantasy about the ‘great game’ of the first World War, highlighting the isolation of the top-brass from the fighting man, and the ultimate futility and absurdity of the ‘strategy’ of trench warfare.

The Smith family goes off to war in 1914 with much ballyhoo and laughter. Through a series of tableaux, the fate of the Smith sons on the battlefields of the Great War, at the mercy of the decisions of the aristrocratic diplomats and the pitiless generals is played out.

Film notes

Brighton is used to portray 'Blighty', and the action such as it is of the war is played out theatre-style on the pier and in the Sussex countryside, both of which stand in as fantasy representations of the continent.

Much of the action in the movie revolves around the words of the marching songs of the soldiers, and many scenes portray some of the more famous (and infamous) incidents of the war, including the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Christmas meeting between British and German soldiers in no-mans-land and the wiping out by their own side of a force of Irish soldiers newly arrived at the front, after successfully capturing a ridge that had been contested for some time.

So, the film does not shy away from dealing with some of the hard-hitting truth of war, but it then leavens the bread by interspersing harrowing scenes with light-hearted songs.

Deighton's coup in asking first time director Attenborough to direct meant the latter was able to use his fantastic list of contacts in the British theatre to persuade a long list of acting's top brass to appear in the film. This is what saves it as a piece of film theatre - some of the cameos are splendidly over the top but also sinister in the portrayal of the disregard for the common man at the front.

Deighton was dissatisfied with the process of producing this film and the outcome, hence his name was removed from the credits, something which he now describes as childish. But he was closely involved with Attenborough in getting it produced, and his ideas - such as the plight of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ seen in many of his books - come across in the script.

During the filming of the movie, at one point Deighton hot-wired twenty parked cars in a Brighton street in order to be able to clear it for filming as they were in the way of the shot.

Sir Laurence Olivier won a BAFTA award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of British Expeditionary Force leader General Sir John French. The film itself won a Golden Globe award in 1970 for best English-language foreign film.

Ian Holm, who played French President Poincaré, of course went on to play Deighton's Bernard Samson character in the ITV adaptation of Game, Set & Match.

Title sequence for Oh! What a Lovely War
designed by Raymond Hawkey

Edward Milward-Oliver, Deighton's biographer, recently interviewed the author for a BBC South East programme being made to celebrate the film Oh! What A Lovely War, as part of the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the First World War in 2014. The television programme is expected to air early next summer..

Read the article here

Film notes

Director: Richard Attenborough
Producers: Len Deighton, Brian Duffy
Screenplay: Len Deighton
Starring: Sir Laurence Olivier (Sir John French), Sir John Mills (Sir Douglas Haig), Sir John Gielgud (Count Berchtold), Vanessa Redgrave (Sylvia Pankhurst); Ian Holm (President Poincaré).
Music: Alfred Ralston Littlewood
Released/broadcast: 21 March 1969.