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How I Won The War

Some films are more interesting for what they aspire to be than for how they turn out. Reuniting with playwright Charles Wood, his collaborator on the great, pointed Swinging London romp The Knack… And How To Get It, Richard Lester brings the same high-spirited energy of that film and his two collaborations with The Beatles—A Hard Day’s Night and Help!—to How I Won The War, a blackly comic World War II movie released in 1967, when Vietnam had begun to dominate the headlines. Lester mixes verbal gags with nonsensical cutaways and surreal elements—one character is inexplicably painted green from head to foot to resemble a plastic toy soldier—and peppers it with actual, and quite grisly, footage of the war. A pacifist by upbringing, the American-born, London-based Lester doubtlessly saw the chance to make a statement about the absurdity of all wars via a war most of the world had come to call just and necessary. Maybe, the film answers, then illustrates how noble causes can go hand-in-hand with stupidity and how even the best intentions rack up a body count.

It’s a fine idea for a movie, but Lester executes it with uncharacteristic clumsiness. The action drags, the gags rarely connect, and the grimness never transmogrifies into a real sense of tragedy. As the unfailingly chipper, borderline imbecilic Lt. Ernest Goodbody, Michael Crawford (star of The Knack… and later to gain fame on stage in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera) has all the best moments. Many of them are tied to his conversations with a Nazi officer who takes him prisoner then treats him kindly, a relationship that sometimes plays like a parody of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, with the two characters finding common ground via their shared fascist impulses. (“It all started in 1939,” Crawford says before adding with delight, “I suppose it did for you too!”) But most of the film concerns a long, often incoherent trudge through North Africa and the only fitfully amusing antics of Crawford’s charges, whose ranks include John Lennon, in his only acting performance outside the Beatles’ films. Though second billed, Lennon has no more screen time than other supporting players like Roy Kinnear, and no better sense of how to give shape to the material than anyone around him. Lester’s misfire looks back to Dr. Strangelove and ahead to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, but, though worth a look for the curious, it won’t make anyone forget either.


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