Oh! What a Lovely War: Wikis


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Oh! What a Lovely War

Oh! What a Lovely War movie poster
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Produced by Richard Attenborough
Brian Duffy
Written by Len Deighton (uncredited)
Starring John Mills
John Gielgud
Laurence Olivier
Michael Redgrave
Maggie Smith
Susannah York
Cinematography Gerry Turpin
Editing by Kevin Connor
Studio Accord Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) 10 March 1969 (UK release)
Running time 144 min

Oh! What a Lovely War is a musical film based on the stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! that Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop created in 1963. The title is derived from the music hall song Oh! It's a Lovely War, which is one of the major numbers in the productions. In 1969 Richard Attenborough directed a cinematic adaptation of the musical. His cast included Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Paul Shelley,Malcolm McFee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, Susannah York, John Clements, Phyllis Calvert and Maurice Roëves. The film has been released on DVD.



Oh! What A Lovely War summarizes and comments on the story of World War I using popular songs of the time. Many of these songs are much older popular songs that have been sarcastically re-worded by the soldiers serving on the front lines.

The film uses a variety of symbolic settings to portray vast summations of historical and societal forces at work. Brighton's West Pier, as a location, represents the First World War, with the British public entering at the turnstiles, and General Haig selling tickets. The protagonists are named as the Smith family; which serve as allegorical representations of the working and middle classes of the nation. The film follows several young Smith men through their experiences in the trenches, most notably Jack (Paul Shelley), Freddy (Malcolm McFee), Harry (Colin Farrell) and George (Maurice Roeves).

The opening sequence is set in a wrought-iron building intended to not look like a real location. This use of Brechtian staging illustrates the ruling class' distance from the realities of war as diplomatic farces, galas, and events involving the aristocracies of many European nations are shown only in this location throughout the film. As various diplomats and aristocrats walk over a huge map of Europe summarising the treaties, nationalism, and lust for expanding empire that were factors leading to the war, the scene ends with a group photo of the upper class being taken by an unnamed photographer. He hands out two red poppies to the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, and takes a picture. As the flash goes off, they fall over dead as he declares they have been assassinated.

The start of the war in 1914 is shown as a parade of optimism. A band playing patriotic music rouses citizens lounging by the beach to rally round it and follow it - some even literally boarding a bandwagon. They are led to the idea of war, illustrated on film as a cheerful seaside carnival on Brighton West Pier. The first Battle of Mons is similarly cheerfully depicted yet more realistic in portrayal. Both scenes are flooded in pleasant sunshine. When the casualties start to mount, a shocked theatre audience is rallied by singing "Are We Downhearted? No!", a song which attempts to express the English psyche of the moment: "While we have Jack upon the sea/And Tommy on the land/We needn't fret".

The curtains on the stage lift to reveal several attractive young women dressed in frilled yellow dresses who recruit a volunteer army. They appeal to the patriotism of the crowd in the 'Roedean' section, singing "We Don't Want To Lose You, But We Think You Ought To Go." Maggie Smith then enters a lone spotlight as the curtain is drawn, and lures the roused but still doubtful young men in the audience into "taking the King's Shilling" by singing a song about how every day she has sex with different men in uniform, and that "On Saturday I'm willing, if you'll only take the shilling, to make a man of any one of you." The young men take to the stage and are quickly moved offstage and into military life.

As scenes from the war are depicted with less symbolism, the red poppy crops up again as a symbol of impending death, often being handed to a soldier about to be sent to die. These scenes are juxtaposed with the white wrought-iron building which now houses the top military brass and the pier. There is a scoreboard showing the loss of life and 'yards gained'.

1915 is depicted as darkly contrasting in tone. Many shots of a parade of wounded men illustrate an endless stream of grim, hopeless faces. Black humour among these soldiers has now replaced the enthusiasm of the early days. "There's A Long, Long Trail A-Winding" captures the new mood of despair, and the scene with the soldiers filing along in torrential rain in miserable conditions looks less like a hyperbolic musical and more like a gritty realistic portrayal of war. Red poppies provide the only bright colour in these scenes. We also see British soldiers on leave and recovering from wounds, often singing songs about wanting to stay home and no longer fight. There is a scene of British soldiers drinking in an estaminet. The chanteuse (Pia Colombo) leads them in a jolly chorus of "The Moon Shines Bright On Charlie Chaplin, a reworking of an American song, then shifts the mood back to darker tone by singing a soft and sombre versions of "Adieu la vie".

A pan-religious service is held in a ruined abbey. A priest tells the gathered masses of soldiers that each religion has endorsed the war by way of allowing soldiers to eat pork if Jewish, red meat on Fridays if Catholic, and work through the sabbath if in service of the war for all religions. He also mentions the Dalai Lama has blessed the war effort.

1916 passes, and the film's tone darkens again. The songs contain contrasting tones of wistfulness, stoicism, and resignation; including "The Bells Of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling", "If The Sergeant Steals Your Rum, Never Mind" and "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire". The wounded are laid out in ranks at the field station, a stark contrast to the healthy rows of young men who entered the War. Harry Smith's silently-suffering face is often lingered upon by the camera.

The Americans arrive, but are shown only in the 'disconnected reality' of the pier and white iron building, singing (in travesty of Cohan) "And we won't come back - we'll be buried over there!" Jack notices with disgust that after three years of this nightmare, he is literally back where he started, fighting at Mons.

As the Armistice is sounding, Jack is the last one to die. The film closes with a long slow pan out that ends in an aerial view of soldiers' graves, dizzying in their geometry and scale, as the voices of the dead sing "We'll Never Tell Them" (a version of the Jerome Kern song "They Didn't Believe Me").

Themes and social commentary

The sense of fundamental class differences pervades the film. The symbolic settings of the pier and the white iron building show the upper class disengaged from the harsh realities of the war and the effects their decisions have upon the ones doing the fighting. Wounded men from the lower ranks have to wait for treatment, but officers have taxis laid on to take them to hospital. A wounded man arrives back in England, relieved to be out of the hell of war, and is told by a nurse, "Don't worry - we'll soon have you back at the Front". Upper-class war dodgers carry on as before, but they think they are making noble sacrifices - "I'm not using my German wine - not while the War's on" (a line spoken in the film by Dirk Bogarde). The staff officer who visits the Front is patently unfamiliar with life there, and desperate to get away, but happy enough to have the men live (and die) in these conditions.

There is one scene in which the war brings an aristocrat (who is called 'Sir John') to converse with one of his retainers, but the conversation is hollow and awkward, as if the men speak different languages. The working-class men in the trenches fraternise with their German 'brothers', and a staff officer in the comfort and safety of England punishes them for their inappropriate behaviour, all while he flirts with a young attractive woman. The pacifist who addresses the workers on the pier falls foul of the crowd's jeered and screamed patriotism.

The religious service set in a crumbling abbey points to the lack of moral foundations of the many religions who 'endorse' the war by way of the priest's statements.


The 1969 film transferred the mise-en-scene completely into the cinematic domain, with elaborate sequences shot at West Pier, Brighton, elsewhere in Brighton and on the South Downs, interspersed with motifs from the stage production. These included the 'cricket' scoreboards showing the number of dead, but Attenborough did not use the pierrot costumes. However, as many critics, including Pauline Kael,[1] noted, the treatment diminished the effect of the numbers of deaths, which appear only fleetingly. Nonetheless, Attenborough's final sequence, ending in a helicopter shot of hundreds of war graves, each individually hammered into the South Downs chalk for the shot, is regarded as one of the most memorable moments of the film. The film was shot in the Brighton, East Sussex, area of the U.K. in the summer of 1968. Many of the extras were local folk, but a great many were students from the University of Sussex, Falmer, on the outskirks of the city. The film's locations included the West Pier (now virtually demolished), Ditchling Beacon, Sheepcote Valley (the trench sequences), Old Bayham Abbey, near Lamberhurst, Kent (the church parade),Brighton Station and Ovingdean (where hundreds of crosses were erected for the classic finale).

The screenwriter Len Deighton asked for his name to be removed from the film's credits after seeing rushes of the film, stating that what was filmed was not as he conceived it. He later stated that he regretted the decision.

The song

The song was written by J.P. Long and Maurice Scott in 1917 and was part of the repertoire of music hall star and male impersonator Ella Shields.[2] Here is the first verse and the chorus:

Up to your waist in water,
Up to your eyes in slush -
Using the kind of language,
That makes the sergeant blush;
Who wouldn't join the army?
That's what we all inquire,
Don't we pity the poor civilians sitting beside the fire.
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
Who wouldn't be a soldier eh?
Oh! It's a shame to take the pay.
As soon as reveille is gone
We feel just as heavy as lead,
But we never get up till the sergeant brings
Our breakfast up to bed
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
What do we want with eggs and ham
When we've got plum and apple jam?
Form fours! Right turn!
How shall we spend the money we earn?
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war.

Two pre-musical renditions, one from 1918, can be found at http://www.firstworldwar.com/audio/ohitsalovelywar.htm


  • Golden Globe, Best Cinematography (Gerry Turpin) 1969
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Art Direction (Donald M. Ashton) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Cinematography (Gerry Turpin) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Costume Design (Anthony Mendleson) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Sound Track (Don Challis and Simon Kaye) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Supporting Actor (Laurence Olivier) 1970

Radio musical documentary

Charles Chilton,[3] producer of the film, created a radio musical of World War I songs called The Long Long Trail (1962), named for the popular music hall song, There's a long, long trail a winding.[4] The piece was a radio documentary that used facts and statistics, juxtaposed with songs of the time, as an ironic critique of the reality of the war.[5]

References in popular culture

  • BBC Radio 4's 15 Minute Musical portrayed Tony Blair's premiership in the style of Oh! What a Lovely War in a September 2006 episode entitled "Oh! What a Lovely Blair"
  • James Rado, one of the original writers and creators of Hair stated that "what a Lovely War" was what made him want to work on a musical dealing with war at a Google Talks event."@Google: The Public Theatre's Revival of Hair". youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_o7mk4U2do. Retrieved 2008-08-26.  
  • The song The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling was used as the play-out music for Ned Sherrin's 1964 BBC-TV show Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life.

External links and references

  1. ^ Kael, Pauline (1971) 'Off with the statues' heads!' in Deeper into Movies, Calder Boyars
  2. ^ Max Arthur (2001) When This Bloody War Is Over. London, Piatkus: 47
  3. ^ Charles Chilton had been personally affected by the war, his father having been killed before he was born.
  4. ^ There's a long, long trail a winding 1913, by Stoddart King (1889-1933) and Alonzo Elliot (1891-1964)
  5. ^ The Cambridge History of British Theatre pp 397-401 Jane Milling, Peter Thomson, Joseph W. Donohue (2004 Cambridge University Press) ISBN 0521651328 accessed 19 October 2007


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