Cast & Crew
In the summer of 1914, leaders of European royalty gather together for a group photograph. As the camera's flashpan explodes, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife fall dead. Accusations are exchanged, impossible ultimatums are delivered, and the heads of state choose sides for the inevitable war. A flashing electric sign at the seaside resort of Brighton announces World War I, and the Smith family falls in line to purchase tickets for patriotic sideshows from England's Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Young Harry Smith responds to an enthusiastic music hall singer and enlists; a short time later, his brother Jack wins at a shooting gallery and is rewarded with a uniform and a one-way ticket to the war. Meanwhile, as Haig haggles with Sir John French and Sir Henry Wilson over strategy, a giant cricket scoreboard tallies deaths in battle. The social set, represented by Stephen and Eleanor, contributes to the effort by vowing not to drink German wine for the war's duration and by requiring their servants to knit mittens for the troops. On Christmas Eve, as the scoreboard tallies 1 1/2 million dead, Allied and German soldiers meet in the no-man's-land between their trenches to exchange liquor, cigarettes and addresses. While Bertram and George Smith live knee-deep in mud, the military brass drink champagne at lavish balls, and Haig mounts his tower at Brighton Pier to order 300,000 men into the Battle of Somme. Meanwhile, suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst is heckled by a streetcorner crowd as she reads anti-war letters written by George Bernard Shaw. At the front lines, a chaplain announces that the Dalai Lama in Tibet is offering his prayers, and the troops answer by singing their own bitter lyrics to traditional church hymns. At a field hospital, Harry Smith dies in the arms of his sister Betty, a nurse, while Haig cheerfully announces that, although no ground was taken at Somme, there were only 60,000 casualties. In 1917, the Americans enter the war, and victory is imminent. As a final tally shows nine million dead, military representatives meet on Brighton Pier to sign the peace treaty. On that day, Jack Smith is killed in action; following a maze of red tape, he walks through patches of swirling smoke to a path strewn with red poppies. Simultaneously, the Smith women picnic on the green hillside where the five Smith boys lie buried along with all the other millions of war dead.
Raymond S. Edwards
P. G. Stephens
Douglas, (maj.-gen.) Campbell
Oh! What a Lovely War -
The traditions of music hall songs and radio newscasts which had informed the United Kingdom's cultural sensibilities during wartime were the foundation here, with Littlewood and Chilton's version avoiding any direct depictions of the horrific side of war like death and military costumes. Instead it was intended as a satirical pastiche, lancing at what she perceived as the buffoonery of war in all its incarnations. The idea for the stage production had actually originated in 1961 as a Chilton radio show, "The Long, Long Trail," with music selections telling the tragic saga of World War I.
The film version was lensed in Sussex (complete with a 65-year-old locomotive brought into a Brighton train station) and made the catastrophic toll of the deaths of thousands more explicit through powerful symbolic use of red poppies and cemetery crosses, devices that would go on to influence several later films (most notably Ken Russell's Tommy, 1975). The entirety of World War I is conveyed from start (with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand) through its wasteful, destructive path to completion years later.
Brought on board to produce alongside Attenborough were photographer Brian Duffy and popular novelist Len Deighton, whose espionage novels included The Ipcress File. All three men had previously worked in different capacities on 1968's Only When I Larf, adapted from Deighton's novel of the same name, and on this film the writer took on adaptation duties. There isn't exactly a traditional plot per se as dozens of songs are performed (all of them accurate to the period and most sung by soldiers at the time) and historical transcripts are integrated within the setting of a seaside pavilion and amusement park.
Interestingly, Deighton would go uncredited on the final film (which has no credited screenwriter); accounts vary as to why, with initial statements indicating that Deighton and the film's distributor, Paramount, were at legal loggerheads over the handling of their adaption of his novel, Funeral in Berlin, though a trade story in Variety (March 17, 1969) indicated that "hassle arose over a difference of opinion as to Attenborough's interpretation of the film, which Deighton believes should have been tougher."
The linking device for all of this is the Smith family, whose men of different generations become grist for the war machinery in one form or another. Along the way the film unveils an eye-popping succession of guest stars, most brought on after early cast member Laurence Olivier agreed to an appearance. Among the familiar faces are Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Susannah York, John Mills, Maggie Smith, Ralph Richardson, Kenneth More, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Jack Hawkins, a very young Jane Seymour, Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, and many more. Still recuperating from traumatic radiation treatment for cancer, Olivier quickly established authority on the set for the first-time director by loudly proclaiming, "Dick, you'd better give me direction on this scene."
The film was rapturously received in the U.K. where it became a major box office hit, though the reception in America was respectful if somewhat more muted. Variety proclaimed, "It may be a long time before a better, more moving and significant film emanates from any movie studio," and Daily Express noted that "you've never seen so many damp film critics in your life" by the finale. On the other hand, The New Republic took it to task as "one more safe, flattering little anti-war film, a smug little exercise in mordant righteousness." Attenborough remained vocally supportive of the film for decades, including personal appearances for screenings when it was reissued from the BFI in the U.K. Of course, this project also set him on a successful path behind the camera helming such films as Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Magic (1978), Chaplin (1992), and the film that would earn him an Oscar for Directing, Gandhi (1982). On multiple occasions, Attenborough would attribute his decision to jump into directing to advice he received from none other than David Lean: "Don't direct just because you want to direct. Direct the project so that it means so much to you that you'll die if you don't do it."
By Nathaniel Thompson
Oh! What a Lovely War -
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.- Soldier Singer
Len Deighton was so displeased with the finished film that he insisted his name be removed from the on-screen credits.
Portions of the film were shot on location in Brighton and Sheepscote, England. When the film opened in London in April 1969, it's running time was 144 minutes. Len Deighton, who was originally a co-producer for the film, requested that he not be given screen credit. Jack Hawkins' voice was dubbed in the film, as the actor had lost his voice due to surgery for throat cancer in 1966.
The United Kingdom
Winner of the British Film Academy's United Nations Award in 1969.
Released in United States Fall October 1969
Released in United States October 2, 1969
Shown at New York Film Festival October 2, 1969.
Richard Attenborough's directorial debut.
Released in United States Fall October 1969
Released in United States October 2, 1969 (Shown at New York Film Festival October 2, 1969.)