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Film / Oh! What a Lovely War

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Based on the 1963 stage musical of the same name (itself derived from the 1962 BBC radio play The Long Long Trail), Oh! What a Lovely War tells the story of World War I, from the moment of the various world leaders at the time forming their alliances to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Made in 1969 and directed by Richard Attenborough, the film boasts an All-Star Cast of 20th-century British film and theatre, including Dirk Bogarde, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Susannah York, and John Mills (though most only appear in cameos).

The film is a surreal blend of pre-1914 fantasies of war as a game in which the only real thing at stake were honour and glory and the reality of the kind of experiences faced by the soldiers during the war. The entirety of the film takes place ostensibly on Brighton Pier (a popular English seaside destination) where the war takes the form of a pier-side attraction, and where all the meetings between the heads of state, the British aristocracy and the war generals take place. From there, the action regularly cuts to show the real world where we see the true consequences of the "war game" being played.

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Because of the play being essentially nothing but a series of short vignettes strung together by a Pierrot show, the film predominantly centres around the Smiths: a large family who all take different paths through the conflict - though they themselves are often not the focus of the scenes they're in, merely being around to witness events (such as the short-lived Christmas ceasefire between the British and German troops on the front lines). Besides the Smiths, the film also focuses on the decisions made by Sir Douglas Haig.

Mostly though, it just makes sure that you understand the concept of "war is hell".


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This film provides examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: The Smiths all have relatively normal names - Jack, Freddie, Harry, George, Richard...and then there's Bertram Biddle Smith. Granted, he's called "Bertie" through most of the film, but still...
  • All According to Plan: Douglas Haig tends to display this attitude a lot. Interestingly, the film never quite seems willing to either applaud or condemn him for it.
  • Aside Glance: The photographer (who also acts as something of a narrator) is prone to giving these, especially when anything potentially Harsher in Hindsight (in universe) occurs.
  • Badass Boast: The first ten minutes or so is essentially every major head of state bandying these around until war is finally declared.
  • Black Comedy: Most of the humour in the film falls under this category.
    George Smith: If he's been shot now, I'll kill him...
  • Blind Obedience: Displayed by Haig's underlings and by pretty much everyone when war is first declared. Really it's not until about halfway through the film that this attitude stops becoming the norm.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Despite this taking place during one of the bloodiest wars in history, not one drop of blood is shown on screen.
  • The Blind Leading the Blind: Arguably the theme of the film.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: YMMV on the level of stupidity, but Haig's unwavering belief that his actions are somehow being divinely approved even as hundreds of thousands of men are being slaughtered with little to no ground being gained (meaning they're essentially dying for nothing) arguably counts as this.
  • Canon Foreigner: Neither the Smith family nor the photographer appear in any way in the original play.
  • Children Are Innocent: "Granny, what did Daddy do in the war?" Also Richard Smith looking through the telescopes at the various battles.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Many people, mainly background characters. A lot of the songs sung by the soldiers make them this as well.
    Soldiers: (singing) Onward, Joe Soap's army,
    Marching without fear,
    With our old commander
    Safely in the rear.
  • Downer Ending: The war might be over, but hundreds of thousands of men are dead and the general consensus seems to be that the cost ultimately wasn't worth all the carnage and the repercussions.
  • Dramatic Irony: Particularly prevalent in the first half of the film. The war is heralded in with a marching band and plenty of flag-waving and cheering and happy music hall songs...but the film expects you to know that it's certainly not going to last for long.
  • The Everyman: All of the Smiths are intended to be this to varying degrees. Jack Smith is probably the most consistent since he's the last to die and sees the Treaty of Versailles being signed at the end on the way to meet the rest of his (male) family.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: During the Christmas ceasefire, a German soldier tells Jack Smith that they won't start firing again unless the British fire first. Guess what happens just after this...
    • In a humourous example, a group of Australian soldiers sing about Haig and the rest of the high command metaphorically "playing leapfrog". Haig literally leapfrogs over two officers at the end of the song.
    • Related to the Bloodless Carnage, whoever gets given a poppy in the film, or is shown to be in close proximity to a poppy, will die in short order. Always off-screen though.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Plenty. All of the heads of state and generals were real people and the script frequently uses real quotes regarding the war (though not always by the people who said them).
  • Jukebox Musical: All of the songs are songs that were popular during the First World War (including the ones with modified lyrics by the soldiers).
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: At any one time, the screen is practically full of people. Most of them don't return for more than a couple of scenes though.
  • Lyrical Dissonance / Soundtrack Dissonance: Many of the songs are actually altered versions of popular pre-1914 music hall songs, which were almost unanimously upbeat and happy. The altered versions, being written by soldiers in the trenches, weren't happy lyrically but still kept the same upbeat music. In the film, the crowning achievement of this has to be a group of soldiers happily singing "Bombed last night" after an implied accidentally self-inflicted mustard gas attack.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Count Berchtold, the Austrian Secretary of State, convinces the Emperor to sign a declaration of war against Serbia, effectively beginning the domino effect of world leaders declaring war. He then freely admits that he made up the most important piece of evidence convincing the Emperor to sign and that he's erased all mention of said evidence from the declaration.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Maggie Smith is this In-Universe as a music hall performer who's given the task of recruiting men for the war. Not so much up close though...
  • Mood Whiplash: All over the place, often several times within a single scene.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Haig seems to display this several times but keeps on going regardless. The Smith matriarch also has a silent moment after seeing one of her sons off to war that could arguably be interpreted as this.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Everyone to some extent. The First World War was not what anyone expected it to be, even those who had seen war before.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: This is so prevalent it may as well be called "Nice Job Breaking It, Hero! The Musical". One of the biggest has to be the British command ordering artillery strikes against their own men as well as the Germans to break up the Christmas ceasefire. Just after the Germans have offered to stop shooting first, no less.
  • No Antagonist: The closest thing (person-wise) the film has to an antagonist is Douglas Haig, but although the film is critical of him and the decisions he made, it also takes care to display how utterly out of his depth Haig was in terms of the scale and nature of the war that was being fought, which had never been seen before, making him into a surprisingly sympathetic character.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: One of the complaints younger viewers have of the film is that the recruiting methods aren't realistic enough. In truth, the scene of the music hall girls recruiting men is actually recorded to have really happened in several places across the UK.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Delivered by Sylvia Pankhurst to a crowd at Brighton Pier on their continued support for the war. It doesn't go over very well.
  • Scenery Porn: Considering the film was made in the 1960s, all the scenes at Brighton Pier have a certain degree of this.
  • Symbolism: Oh so much.
    • The poppies symbolise death.
    • The pier symbolises the idea of war as a game, which is how all the characters who remain in the pier see it.
    • The Smith family represent the various demographics and viewpoints of the ordinary people who became involved in the war.
  • Sliding Scale of Cynicism vs. Idealism: In-Universe the scale slowly moves from Idealism to Cynicism. Out of universe, the scale is firmly tipped towards Cynicism throughout.
  • Title Drop: In song form.
  • True Companions: The Smiths don't really interact with each other much once they start becoming involved with the war, but when they do interact, they give off this vibe. Some of the other soldiers the Smiths meet give signs of being this as well, particularly the soldier Freddie gets drunk with while on leave who he meets again in a foxhole just before he dies, and the soldier Jack greets before the final offensive.
  • Villain Song: YMMV on the "villain" aspect, but "Oh What A Lovely War" (the song) has shades of this, given it's being sung by those in high command who are still treating the war as a game rather than by the soldiers who sing most of the other songs.
  • Wham Line: Said by Haig after one of his officers floats the idea of halting the war of attrition on the western front: "In the end, they shall have 5000 men left, while we will have 10,000. And we will have won." It basically sums up the attitude of those in charge towards the "cannon fodder" under their command.
  • Wham Shot: There are three main ones. First at the end of the French soldier's happy song celebrating going to war before turning round and seeing his soldiers (represented by marionettes on a toy roundabout) being shot and killed. Second, during the title song, we see Haig taking part in a game of Blind Man's Bluff before a scoreboard comes into frame bearing horrendous statistics. Third, the final shot of the film in which the male Smiths all lie back in the grass and fade away to white crosses...and then the camera just keeps pulling back to reveal acres of the same crosses.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Both the youngest and eldest male Smiths disappear entirely from the film approximately halfway through. The eldest, we can assume, potentially died before the end of the war, but there's no explanation of what happened to the youngest which is especially jarring when his sister (who looked to be only a couple of years younger than him) is in the final scene. To a lesser extent, many of the characters who aren't Haig or a member of the Smith family completely disappear after one or two scenes.
  • Would Hurt a Child: It's subtle but it's implied that Freddie Smith is underage (men were not supposed to be accepted into the army until they were 19) when he enters the war. He ends up dead along with the rest of the men in his family by the end.note 


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