Saturday, October 7, 2023

#2,930. How I Won the War (1967) - Double Feature of '60s British War Films


John Lennon gets second billing in the 1967 WWII comedy How I Won the War, which is a notable appearance for the late musician because it features him in what is his only non-musical role. Name recognition, especially in the late ‘60s, was reason enough for director Richard Lester and his team to put Lennon so high up the cast list, and almost every poster for the film (including the cover of a recent Blu-Ray release) has Lennon front and center.

But Lennon’s role was not big enough to warrant his being so high up in the credits. Only the film’s star, Michael Crawford, is listed higher. Crawford plays the overly-enthusiastic, unbelievably naïve Lt. Goodbody, commanding officer of a ragtag troop sent on suicide missions first to the deserts of North Africa, then the heart of Germany.

Lennon, as a soldier named Gripweed, has his moments, but personally I would have put him at maybe 5th or 6th on the cast list, certainly behind Roy Kinnear, whose Clapper is perpetually worried that his wife back home is being romanced by butchers and insurance salesmen. Lee Montague as Sgt. Transom, the unit's lone skilled soldier, also has a bigger role than Lennon. He is forever trying to clean up Goodbody’s mistakes, and seriously considers, on several occasions, shooting his commanding officer himself.

As far as the comedy goes, Jack MacGowran’s insane Juniper, who first acts like a vaudeville entertainer (even attempting ventriloquism just before a key battle), then transforms into a gung-ho, war-loving General, gets the most laughs. 

The story is simple enough: Goodbody, fresh out of officer’s training, where he failed to impress his mentor, General Grapple (Michael Hordern), is assigned to command what might be the most inept platoon of the Second World War. Try as he might to gain their respect with pep talks and promises of glory, Goodbody only manages to alienate his men.

Things go from bad to worse when they find themselves wandering the deserts of North Africa, searching for a battle they cannot find. Even the discovery of a Nazi oasis, with all the water they can drink, ends badly (after capturing the oasis via one of the film’s funniest scenes, Goodbody orders his men to build a Cricket field, then forces them to play for hours under the burning sun).

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, because most of what transpires in How I Won the War is told in flashback. As the movie opens, Goodbody is separated from his men and captured by the Germans. He is interrogated by Nazi officer Oldebog (Karl Michael Volger), who has orders from High Command to destroy what is the last bridge over the Rhine, thus cutting Berlin off from the invading Allied forces.

Goodbody develops a friendship with Oldebog, finding in him a fellow soldier with whom he can finally communicate. So, Goodbody gives his name, rank, and serial number, then proceeds to regale Oldebog with his platoon’s exploits since they entered the war!

Like he did three years earlier with A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester brings style to spare to How I Won the War. Characters break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience; and stock footage of actual battle scenes are incorporated into the film’s staged skirmishes, often jarringly so (the battles themselves seldom match the selected stock footage, though I believe that was a deliberate choice made by Lester). There are times when the characters even let it slip that they know it’s all just a movie!

Billed as a war / comedy, How I Won the War is also an effective fantasy, with settings that seldom make sense for a WWII movie (the oasis is especially strange), and characters who talk openly of their disdain for their commanding officer, and flee from battle the moment shots rings out. This was all designed, of course, by Lester and company, a grand statement of sorts on war and the effect (or lack of effect) it has on the common soldier.

But scenes are strung together in a confusing manner. With so many jumps back and forth in the timeline, we often ask ourselves “Where are we now?”. Even more jarring is that, whenever one character is shot dead, they are replaced by a “Toy Soldier”, decked out entirely in green or red and with a stocking over their face. There were times when How I Won the War frustrated me, and my attention waned as a result.

Yet there are also very effective scenes throughout, especially in the final act. Lester incorporates more intense, more realistic battle sequences into the film’s goofier skirmishes. One character, killed by a stray bullet from a dropped rifle, is also shown as dying with honor during the battle of Alamein, a correlation, no doubt, between the absurdity and the heroics of warfare. The man is just as dead in both scenarios. In one, he is a brave soldier, shot in the head, his body lying against the treads of a German tank. In the other, he is a victim of hilariously bad luck. Which is reality, and which is fantasy? We don’t know, and I’m not sure we’re supposed to know.

In the last half hour of How I Won the War, Lester finally hits his stride, blending the surreal with the all-too-real while driving home his points about war, commanding officers, and enemy combatants. The confusion I felt early on gave way to a genuine admiration for the film, and I laughed a little when, during the grand finale, the title How I Won the War proved more than one soldier’s boastful bravado.

With nods to movies such as Lawrence of Arabia (the theme from which plays as the troops stumble around the North African desert) and Bridge on the River Kwai (a key moment from that movie is parodied to perfection during the oasis raid), How I Won the War both reaches for and lovingly mocks grand, sprawling war epics, all the while keeping its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

As for Lennon, he does, as I said, have his moments in the movie, and proved himself an able actor even when not strumming a guitar.

But don’t let the ads fool you; there’s a lot more to How I Won the War than John Lennon!
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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