Monday, October 30, 2006

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Oh! What a Lovely WarFans of Richard Attenborough's directorial debut, Oh! What a Lovely War have had to wait a long time for this fantasy-vs-reality musical to appear on DVD, apparently because of issues around obtaining the required World War I song rights.

But this famous anti-war film has arrived at last - with a stunning transfer, a rather lavish package comprising generous digi-pack with slip case, and a rock-bottom price to boot. What's not to like?

Well, quite a lot probably and I should point out right from the off that the film won't be to everyone's taste. Its attempt to tell the story of World War I as a sort of musical that keeps shifting from a theatrical presentation recorded mainly on Brighton pier, to a more realistic portrayal in the mud-drenched trenches, won't be to everyone's taste. This is in no way a 'normal' film, and it doesn't help itself with a long introduction which tries to give us the background to the start of the War. There are too many facts and figures - the latter respresented by the aristocracy of British acting talent - assaulting the viewer from all sides, making it hard to ease into the film. The fact that most of this is delivered on a single theatrical 'stage', rather than against a more cinematic backdrop, only adds to the confusion, and it takes about 20 minutes to settle into the odd rhythm of the film and the way it switches between theatrical fantasy and cinematic reality.

However, settle back and let the film work its not inconsiderable charms on you and the chances are you'll be won over by the end, which arrives with some poignancy 2 hours and 20 minutes later.

Putting aside the unusual musical nature of the film, it would be a 'must see' for any film enthusiast, if only for the cast list. The film features the veritable cream of the crop of British acting talent from the late 1960's: Laurence Olivier (ridiculously over-the-top as an upper-class idiot general), John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Dirk Bogarde, Jack Hawkins,Maggie Smith seemingly all of the Redgrave clan,... and many more besides appear throughout. It's hard to remember seeing quite so much major league talent appearing in a single film.

The anti-war message of the film is one worth telling, albeit one we seem to keep ignoring, and there are some very clever transitions and machinations used to switch us between the fantasy and reality elements of the film. However, at times the film feels just a little TOO clever, and the message just a little TOO obvious, with the satire appearing well-thought-out, but dare-I-say-it a little dull and slow-moving in places? The artificie of using poppies to denote death and blood is cute, but over-used and there are times when one feels one is being hit over the head with a sledge-hammer with the basic message about the evils of War and class difference.

In a world of over-priced two disk DVD sets that contain little to justify a single disk let alone a second, this DVD release is a real treat, although I'm still trying to work out how they managed to squeeze so much onto a single disk without compromising the picture quality.

A comprehensive 16 page booklet is included, as is a commentary from director Richard Attenborough (his first!), and an interesting 70 minute documentary, foolishly presented as if it were three separate parts with titles that bear little relation to the actual contents. This latter feature, presented in anamorphic widescreen, features the director and a few of the remaining cast members sharing their reminisces about the film, although at times these are extremely thin. There are some extremely bizarre close-ups of those involved looking straight at camera for a few seconds towards the end and the subjects look almost as uncomfortable as we viewers feel wathcing it - what was the director thinking? Anybody whose seen those silly ITV trailers where key cast memebers are made to sit on podiums staring straight to camera as it circles them for no apparent reason, and lingering on them for far too long will know what I mean!

The commentary is a disappointing affair, with Attenborough spending almost the entire two hours talking about the war itself rather than the film, more often than not telling us what he's already made blindingly obvious on the screen as if we were dunces not able to follow the meaning of song lyrics or what we're seeing. But it's rather churlish to criticise given that the main feature here is the film, and the transfer is nothing short of stunning. I challenge anyone to find a single fleck of dust or speckle on this master copy. Occasionally the picture appears a little soft, but this appears to be down to the originally shot footage because at other times the picture is so clear it's like looking at 3D.

As I said in my intro, this won't be to everybody's taste, but if you're up for a fairly unique experiment in cinema, a cast list to die for, and some thoughtful direction with good cinematography this DVD comes recommended. And given its generous packaging and bargain basement pricing I'd say this one's definitely a purchase rather than a rental!

1 comment:

Richard said...

Thanks for review. I agree this is an innovative film well worth watching:

I've just seen it myself.