Genetic testing, I think, would show Oh! What a Lovely War and Paths of Glory to be fraternal twins. Both are anti-war, both use the appalling circumstances of World War I to underline the corruption of old men who use war as a way to occupy their time and cause young men to die in the tens of thousands. But where Paths of Glory uses bitterness, Oh! What a Lovely War uses irony and the clever trick of turning our own jingoistic instincts against us. The movie is a pastiche of fantasy, fact, music halls, songs with words often used by the soldiers and the real-life statements of key personalities. There are two threads which connect everything together. The first is the fate of the Smith family and the five sons who eagerly sign up to beat the Hun. The second is the smugness, the certitude, the deadly self-confidence of those who make decisions about war. The fantasy takes place on a great seaside boardwalk with a wonderful wooden pier and ornate pavilions at the end. Here the Smith family and hundreds of others line up at the counter to buy tickets to join in "the ever popular War Game." Inside the music hall Maggie Smith sings "I'll Make a Man of You," a seducing, winking recruiting song...
"The Army and the Navy need attention, The outlook isn't healthy you'll admit, But I've got a perfect dream of a new recruiting scheme, Which I think is absolutely 'it.' If only other girls would do as I do I believe that we could manage it alone, For I turn all suitors from me but the sailor and the Tommy. I've an army and a navy of my own.
"On Sunday I walk out with a Soldier, On Monday I'm taken by a Tar, On Tuesday I'm out with a baby Boy Scout, On Wednesday a Hussar; On Thursday a gang oot wi' a Scottie, On Friday, the Captain of the crew; But on Saturday I'm willing, if you'll only take the shilling, To make a man of any one of you."
And off go the first of the Smith sons up to the stage, encouraged by their proud and smiling wives, to take the shilling and walk out into the trenches. While the pier may be fantasy, the trenches are all too realistic. It is at Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig's headquarters at the pier where sports score boards are kept of the battles: "The Somme, 1916. British losses: 607,781 officers and men. Ground gained: Nil." It's at the pier where staff officers, well away from the fighting, play leap frog while sending out orders to attack. "One more frontal assault, gentlemen, and we shall win." And men leave the trenches as ordered to charge forward with rifles and bayonets against machine guns and barbed wire. In a looney atmosphere the troops are lined up for Sunday services and hear from an upper-class preacher, "I'm sure you'll all be glad to hear news from the home front. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it known it is no sin to labor for the war on the Sabbath. And I'm sure you'll also like to know the Chief Rabbi has absolved your Jewish brethren from abstaining from pork in the trenches. Likewise, His Holiness the Pope has ruled that the eating of flesh on Friday is no longer a mortal sin..." Through it all the home front, energized against the Hun, reads the death lists with trembling but brave lips, and the men who die deal with the absurdity by singing their own morbid versions of songs...
"If you want the old battalion, We know where they are, we know where they are, We know where they are. If you want the old battalion, we know where they are, They're hanging on the old barbed wire. We've seen them, we've seen them, Hanging on the old barbed wire."
Even their laughter at Christmas can have an ironic twist...
"It was Christmas Day in the cookhouse, the happiest time of the year, Men's hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up popped Private Shorthouse, his face as bold as brass, He said We don't want your puddings, you can stick them up your...tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of co-omfort and joy.
"It was Christmas Day in the harem, the eunuchs were standing 'round, And hundreds of beautiful women were stretched out on the ground, Along came the wicked Sultan, surveying his marble halls, He said Whaddya want for Christmas boys, and the eunuchs answered...tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of comfort and joy."
The film ends with one of the most touching and bitter conclusions I've ever seen. The Smith family, now just the women, walk on a fine, sunlit day through a meadow filled with white crosses. The camera pulls back and back until we can only see these four moving white dots in a vast, endless meadow of green grass and white crosses. And we can hear soldiers faintly singing their own version of "They Wouldn't Believe Me."
"And when they ask us, how dangerous it was, Oh, we'll never tell them, no, we'll never tell them. We spent our pay in some cafe, And fought wild women night and day, 'Twas the cushiest job we ever had.
"And when they ask us, and they're certainly going to ask us, The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre, Oh, we'll never tell them, oh, we'll never tell them. There was a front, but damned if we knew where."
This was Richard Attenborough's first job as a director and he pulls it off with great effectiveness. He rounded up the cream of British actors, starting with Lawrence Olivier. These aren't stunt cameos. Even when some of the parts are just a few lines, the actors perform with great effect. They are key to the opening scene when, playing the important rulers and statesmen in 1913 and 1914, they are gathered around inside a fantasy pavilion and Attenborough constructs the background to the war using them.
I think the film is one of the best and oddest of the anti-war movies. It was based on the Joan Littlewood theater piece, which was small-scale, brisk and acerbic. If any, like me, squirm at Paths of Glory's earnestness, they might want to sample its fraternal twin directed by Attenborough.
In keeping with the spirit of both Oh, What a Lovely War and Paths of Glory, it seems appropriate to give Wilfred Owen the last word. He was a young officer in WWI who often wrote poetry when he wasn't fighting. Owen was killed leading yet another pointless charge just four days before the armistice was declared. He was 25. His poems were published posthumously to great acclaim. This excerpt tells the story of a gas attack and of a man who fumbled getting his mask on...
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you, too, could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's, sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues... My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. *
*Which translates as "It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country."