The story of Oh! What a Lovely War is that of the First World War (1914–1919. Director Richard Attenborough (1923–2014) assembled an all-star production to create his first film, an adaption of Joan Littlewood’s 1963 near-Brechtian production and smash hit stage musical that she conceived and birthed in London’s East End Theatre Royal and Stratford East).
Joan Littlewood (1914–2002) was one of the extraordinary British stage geniuses of her creative era. Others were Alan Ayckbourn, Peggy Ashcroft, James M. Barrie, Noel Coward, T.S. Eliot, Edith Evans, John Galsworthy, John Gielgud, Graham Greene, Alec Guinness, Tyrone Guthhrie, Laurence Olivier, Harold Pinter, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, George Bernard Shaw, Maggie Smith, Sybil Thorndike, Donald Wolfit, and W. B. Yeats among others.
Littlewood’s stage production of Oh! What a Lovely War was patterned on the revue format, a series of sketches and songs fitting a theme—in this case the cheery or jingoistic Music Hall-era songs of the day placed in ironic and damning contrast to grim reports from the battlefield.
Those stars playing Royals or High Command included Phyllis Calvert, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Guy Middleton, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Cecil Parker, Michael Redgrave, and Ralph Richardson. Stars playing characters without rank or station included Dirk Bogarde, Maggie Smith, Juliet Mills, Corin Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Seymour, and Susannah York. All the stars worked for far less than their customary salaries—a sign of high regard for both Mr. Attenborough and Ms. Littlewood.
The sanitized news from the World War I battlefront was as assuring as the patriotic music of the day or the ditties sung in summer on seaside boardwalks, cheery Music Hall shows year round, and the delightful holiday Pantos. The truth was the Allies battlefield trenches were overrun, the troops in retreat, and daily body counts rose, but bad news remained underreported—as did the shortages of ammunition, supplies and food.
The British General Staff knew how badly the war was going, but they held back disquieting news as they threw their troops against the enemy as if their low-level soldiers were fighting an unarmed or primitively armed foe (as at Amritsar in India, or the rag-tag rebellion of peon Malayan rubber workers).
The British general staff tried to hold off the German advances, hoping the USA would enter the war, as the Americans did in 1917—three years after WWI started in 1914 and one year before the USA helped win it with the Allies: Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, and some Balkan nations.
Oh! What a Lovely War is a unique film based on actual decisions of the British and their Allies. Too many of those decisions by the rock-headed Allied General Staff led men and boys to be slaughtered.
Governments in the 1910s did not offer workers unemployment insurance, social security, health insurance and old age benefits. And it bestowed even less upon its veterans, often torn in body, mind and spirit.
Sure, the parson blessed the demobilized doughboy, the Army gave him a medal, and maybe he had a family he could try to rejoin. Those who were alone in a world they had learnt to distrust, turned to the Salvation Army. “The Sallies” used their meager resources to feed the lad a nightly meal, find him a bed, and, when he left their shelter, hand him a tin cup and crutches so he could beg on the street.
Seldom has there been a movie that depicted as tellingly yet cannily the inequities of wealth, privilege and power between the upper classes and industrial autocrats and those downtrodden in the early Industrial Age—those who fight the wars and never get ahead economically—and those buffered by wealth and class who don’t enlist in wars, but simply stay behind, wave flags and prosper.
The jaunty popular music sung and heard in the 1910s provides a mocking contrast to the daily reports from the battlefronts, doctored for the press and public. Later, people were shocked to learn that 10 million Allied soldiers died by bombs or bayonets. Others were maimed to a degree (or stricken by yellow fever) that rendered them unable to perform most civilian work–making them dependent upon their families. If they had none, begging on the street was their reward for defending their countries.
Richard Attenborough was knighted for his many accomplishments on stage and screen. Jean Littlewood was not.
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Frank Cullen has co-authored with Donald McNeilly: Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America (2006), and seven show business novels (Porridge Sisters Adventures (2009-2018). Both men founded The American Vaudeville Museum in 1982; those collections are now housed at University of Arizona, Tucson. Frank curated and hoisted The Albuquerque Film Club, 2007–2018 and Movies in the Mountains at the East Mountains Public Library in Tijeras from 2018 to Covid. In 2009 Cullen and McNeilly were honored by the Theatre Museum of New York for Excellence in the Preservation of Theatre History.