FEATURING: Michael Crawford, Lee Montague, , Karl Michael Vogler, ,
PLOT: An incompetent rookie British Lieutenant leads a reluctant squad on a mission to set up a cricket pitch behind German lines.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a few funny/clever bits, but mostly misfire gags that are often more incoherent than absurd. A nice try, but bit of a dud from Richard Lester, who would bounce back soon with The Bed Sitting Room, a much more effective comedy in the same surreal style.
COMMENTS: The absurdity of war and absurd-minded director Richard Lester would seem to be a match made in heaven. Why How I Won the War didn’t work, then, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps war is too serious a topic for an artist of Lester’s flippant temperament. Since no one really supports war as an abstract concept, to make a military satire work it either needs to be extremely specific (i.e., have the balls to explicitly attack the Vietnam conflict) or to go truly dark (blow up the whole damn world, a la Strangelove).
More likely, War fails simply because the jokes just aren’t funny enough to carry the feature. Characters and situations are ill-defined, and the thick accents and humour largely based around British class system don’t make things any easier for the outsider. Despised by his working class troops, young Lt. Goodbody is sent to North Africa and sent on an insanely dangerous morale-building mission. Eventually he is captured by the enemy, where he finds a Nazi officer to be better company than his own squadron (his captor also gets the movie’s best lines: “we are not all supermen, you know”). The story jumps back and forth in time in a series of sketches and asides which are further broken up by tinted footage of actual World War II battles. Perhaps this methodology is intended to convey the confusion of a combat campaign, but it keeps us from getting invested in the characters or their mission. Without comment, the squad takes on mute soldiers painted green and pink (the suggestion is they’ve been reassigned into this movie from the archival footage). At one point a laugh track appears when Jack MacGowran puts on a clown nose and starts a comedy routine (his character also does a ventriloquist routine and dons blackface for battle). A disturbed soldier holes up naked in a truck and refuses to come out; he’s seen banging on the door in an institution, then the moment is forgotten as he’s back in the desert. It’s not so much that these bits don’t make sense in themselves as that they don’t appear to serve a larger purpose in a grand comic scheme. The point seems to be that war is, you know, crazy. Lester doesn’t follow up on the intriguing suggestions that the events of the movie are a funhouse mirror version of real-life historical battles, which might have given War a greater sense of purpose. Instead, like its real-life counterpart, War has no winner.
How I Won the War‘s marketing campaign was built almost entirely around John Lennon’s presence in the cast. To this day, posters and ads deceptively suggest this is a starring role for the pacifist Beatle. Actually, his part is extremely small, hardly more significant than the other half-dozen grunts in his squad. While Lennon was incredibly talented, those talents did not extend to acting. (, the group’s least talented musician, turned out to be the only halfway decent Beatle actor). The best thing about Lennon’s performance is that Lester made sure he wasn’t tested; his lines are throwaway one-liners buried among routines from the rest of the squad, and his character is cynical and detached so that his emotionless delivery becomes an asset.
Kino Lorber released War on Blu-ray in 2016 along with a number of other 1960s Lester features. Trailers (often with commentary from the “Trailers from Hell” gang) are the only extras on these discs.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: