February 29, 1968
"How I Won The War," directed by Richard Lester. Starring Michael Crawford and John Lennon. University Theatre.
By BRUCE VILANCH
Lantern Movie Reviewer
It's nice that the cast of "How I Won The War" is having so much fun. I wish I could say the same for the audience.
Never have I seen such a happy bunch of actors. They get to go around in pantaloons and funny hats, get to fall into ponds, get to run out in the good, fresh sunshine, in fact, get to do everything but act.
This sort of thespianistic therapy has worked quite well in other films (nobody acted much in "Georgy Girl") but here it is operating at a distinct disadvantage for several reasons.
No Story Line Present
There is first of all no shred of story line with which to hold our attention while the actors cavort. There is also no dramatic conflict. There are no more than three solid laughs. There is nothing particularly horrifying.
What there is plenty of is POINT. Point sticks out all over. Director Richard Lester is divesting himself of all his hostility towards war. War is absurd, he is saying, and as such should be treated absurdly.
So he proceeds to construct an episodic, vaudevillian banality aimed at pointing up the utter foolishness of war and the rank folly of glorifying it on the screen. With unbridled relish he attacks every war movie cliche in sight. The problem is that what he is doing is all too noticeable. His picture is literally pregnant with purpose.
When Mr. Lester fiendishly zooms in on a dying soldier we are allowed only a few seconds of pure Hollywood emotion before someone butts in front of the camera and exclaims, "Haven't you had enough? Go let this man die in peace." And our heads hurt from having the message thumped into our skulls.
Actors Romp Through Picture
At any number of times during the film the actors are allowed to race hither and yon in sequences which must have sounded hysterical in script conferences. No sooner have they completely taxed our patience than the scene abruptly switches to fancifully tinted beaches lined with lushly colored war dead. The effect is supposed to be one of revulsion and grim irony, but its stultifying obviousness leaves us silent--not with contemplation, but with disinterest. To add visual polygamy to mental portentiousness, Mr. Lester has taken his trusty handheld camera and gone wild. Scenes are wholly out of order, cuts are fast and furious, camera angles are dangerously artsy. The director is really reaching for effect.
What story there is has to do with a British squadron fighting in North Africa and elsewhere during World War II. Thanks to the lamebrained decisions of their youthful commander, played in desperately comic fashion by Michael Crawford, the group scrapes out of every battle it fights, but not without losing one man. Each fallen comrade returns to the fray subsequently, clad in a different pastel shade (blue for one battle, pink for the next.) By movie's end the troop is quite pretty indeed, but no funnier.
Lennon Makes Appearance
Beatle John Lennon makes an appearance as a stupid soldier, a role to which he could become easily accustomed, judging from the natural manner in which he acts this one. Mr. Lennon has been given precious little to do. He gets to do The Big Death at the end (an honor he shares this year with Jim Brown) and a few other things, all of which he accomplishes adequately.
The rest of the cast ranges from what used to be called "silly ass English" to what is still called "ballsy Greek." All speak absolutely unintelligible English.
Two Redeeming Features
There are one or two redeeming features to "How I Won The War." One is a splendid scene in which the British prisoner and Nazi commander compare their reflections on genocide. Two is the film's undisguised ambition.
"How I Won The War" aspires to much more than it is or ever can be. It would like to be shocking. It is instead only confusing. It would like to be thought-provoking. It instead leaves us cold. It would like to be the final statement on war and war movies--a noble impossibility. It would like to be all of these things, but it is unfortunately none. By assuming a frenetic, campy, unwholesomely flippant and disjointed position, it has defeated itself.