How I Won the War

 

How I Won the War

(Special Edition plus Commemorative Photo Album)

Screenplay by Charles Wood

Based on the book by Patrick Ryan

Cinematography by David Watkin

Produced & Directed by Richard Lester

1967

 

Cast:

Michael Crawford

Roy Kinnear

Lee Montague

Jack MacGowran

Michael Hordern

Jack Hedley

John Lennon

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Petersham Pictures through United Artists

Video: MGM

 

Video:

Format: DVD-R

Aspect Ratio: 1.67:1

Anamorphic

Codec: MPEG-2

Runtime: 110 minutes

Chapters: N/A

Region: 1

 

Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono

 

Subtitles: English

 

Extras:

• Trailer (1:10)

 

Presentation:

Clamshell DVD case

Release Date: March 20, 2011



Introduction:

Two things we should get out of the way right off.  The first is that this is not a DVD in the usual sense, but one of those burned DVD-R formatted discs that may or may not hold up over time.  (I’ve already encountered a complete STOP on a Warner Bros Made-to-Order DVD.)  Typical of those discs is the absence of a navigable menu. Nor are there chapters, though punching the chapter forward or back button on your remote will plop you into the time line every ten minutes.  Also, as is usual for these discs, there are no extra features.  It does, however, have English subtitles, which is not nothing, and a trailer, which is.  For all of this, MGM/Fox, like Warner and Columbia, are charging us as if this was a genuine DVD.  The “special edition” for which MGM adds a premium presumably refers to the “Commemorative Photo Album” which was not included in my screener copy, so I am unable to comment on it. To my knowledge, this is the second release in plastic media of Richard Lester’s weird and wacky war satire, and may or not be identical in sight and sound to the first edition.


               


The second matter has to do with the idea that this is a John Lennon film.  There he is on the cover with his signature granny glasses and his name above the title next to Michael Crawford and again n front of the “supporting” cast in the opening credits. (I still can’t get over the fact that Crawford was the original Phantom in Andrew Lloyd's opera/musical, the same confident voice we hear on the soundtrack.)  Back to the rebel Beatle.  Well, Lennon is weepingly young, I mean really young.  He’s 26 but looks scarcely 19.  And while he may have been the best internationally known actor in the film by far, he’s only a minor character.  And as much as we smiled when we saw him up there on the big screen and shed a half tear when we see him now, he doesn’t exactly steal every scene he’s in any more than anyone else.


               


I think the movie works better today than it did in 1967 if for no other reason than because of the distance we have from Lennon as superstar.  The ad campaign featured his name and presence in the film to the detriment of the movie’s true intentions and style which, while not all that remarkable, were familiar enough to English audiences from the “Goon Show” radio programme.  My feeling is that How I Won the War might best be understood as a series of Brechtian sketch comedies tied loosely together by the increasing number of dead troopers, now variously colored from head to foot like plastic toy soldiers.


Richard Lester, a wunderkind of sorts, had already made a name for himself with the two Beatles feature films “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!,” “The Knack” and the less popular but still widely known “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”  He would take the nihilist implications of How I Won the War to its - dare I say, logical - conclusion in his 1969 “Bed Sitting Room.”


               

 

The Movie: 7

Lt. Earnest Goodbody (Crawford) recounts how he won World War II for England.  The soldiers in his command all think he’s a dangerous twit, which he is.  We follow them from their training with toy rifles, to the deserts of North Africa, playing cricket when possible and when not possible, to Europe where Goodbody negotiates at length with the opposing German commander for the price of a bridge that he would pay him not blow it up.  As Goodbody’s men are killed off one by one, we briefly flash back and forward to real and imaginary moments in their life and death.


               


I think Roger Ebert was being kind when he rated it two stars out four.  He really didn’t like it.  He pretty much thought that Lester had lost control of his material, and depended too much on Lennon’s stardom to sell the picture. 


‘In "How I Won the War," Lester has indulged his personal style instead of using it. He is its victim, not its master, and it runs away with him. It is impossible to be sure what is meant in this movie. No sense can be made of the plot. It's easy to excuse all this by saying that war itself is confused, that soldiers never know what the hell is going on and that the Big Picture makes no more sense than the little one.’


               


Ebert also found the dialogue muddled.  The present DVD addresses this to some extent with subtitles.  But I can’t say I really needed them.  I’m not sure what Ebert would make of the film today, but my inclination is and always has been closer to that of David Cairns who dismisses the Lennon problem as anachronistic, and writes:


“Lester and Wood were dedicated to the proposal that the horrors of war should not be recycled as entertainment. The film sets out to argue this, by parodying war-movie clichés alongside grisly violence. The melodramatic platitudes are rendered appalling in the face of realistic bloodshed (and recreations of Montgomery’s least successful battles), and even much of the comedy is designed to elicit pain rather than mirth. As a soldier lies in the sand with his feet blown off, his wife inexplicably appears by his side, gives a heartfelt speech to camera about the nobility of suffering, and when interrupted by the actual suffering of her spouse, advises, “Oh, run ‘em under the cold tap, love.” Much of the comedy IS riotously funny, or breathtakingly bizarre, but some of it is just a mockery of the kind of “comic relief” used to celebrate military camaraderie in conventional war flicks.”


               

 

Image: 5/3

In some ways PQ was better than I expected, probably because it took so long for the movie to reach DVD (2002, I believe).  The print was in satisfactory condition, though it could benefit from a bit more cleaning up and some restoration.  There was some noise and edge enhancement, but neither was distracting to the point of madness.

 

Audio & Music: 5/7

The original mono is maintained, which is all to the good.  Ebert found his theatrical experience over 40 years ago muddled.  The DVD isn’t.  So there.


               

 

Extras: 2

A Trailer. . . letterboxed. . . full of comedic bits that don’t really reflect the film.  Also a Commemorative Photo Album, which was not included with my screener copy.

 

Recommendation: 4

I am of two minds here.  I’m happy that MGM has reissued the film in plastic.  However, I am opposed in principal to a medium that has no certifiable track record for longevity.


               


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 19, 2011


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