Tune In: The Psychedelic Experience: How I Won the War (1967)
How I Won The War is mostly remembered for being the film that John Lennon briefly starred in, as Musketeer Gripweed, while he was writing Strawberry Fields Forever, just before Sergeant Pepper was recorded (The Pepper song A Day In The Life references the film), and for when he began wearing the (now iconic) Lennon ‘granny’ round spectacles. In fact, nowadays his image is the only one to grace the DVD cover. Yet, the film has so much more to offer than Lennon’s charming cameo………
Richard Lester’s film is a sharp satire on the history of the war film and sets its sights firmly on the horrors of World War II. The screenplay, by Charles Wood, adapts the 1963 novel of the same name by Patrick Ryan as well as Wood’s own banned anti-war surrealistic play, Dingo. It concerns the flashback reminisces of a young British Officer named Ernest Goodbody (Michael Crawford), told largely to his German Officer captor, Odelbog (Karl Michael Volger) over flashbacks. The plot reveals the pointless, and ultimately futile, mission of a group of British soldiers attempts to set up a cricket pitch behind enemy lines in Egypt, in order to impress a visiting VIP. The pointlessness of this mission nicely mirrors the absurdity of war and, along the way, the film subversively attacks both war and war movie conventions.
Crawford and Lennon are joined by a great cast, including Roy Kinnear as overweight soldier, Clapper, who is convinced his wife is cheating on him (Kinnear worked previously with Lennon and Richard Lester on The Beatles Help!), Michael Hordern as Grapple, a general just as oblivious to the suffering of his men as Goodbody and Jack Macgowran, as the groups designated fool, Juniper.
As Goodbody hopelessly messes up his command, his ineptitude contributes to most of his men being killed along the way, while the narrative is cleverly interrupted by character asides to the audience and scenes overflow with symbolism and inventiveness as we follow the doomed troop. What I particularly loved was how, when any soldier died, he carried on marching with the other men as a kind of monochromatic ghost, a toy soldier – different coloured soldiers in some prints of the film represent what battle that soldier died in, while the idea of the toy soldier was to show Goodbody’s ineptitude and lack of maturity –a nicely surreal touch that is genuinely effective. How I Won The War’s attack on the mindset of the military is similarly successful. One memorable scene mocks the warmongers by portraying two British Oficers swapping bubblegum cards of war scenes. One exclaims (in a deliberately plummy accent) ‘I want school bombing I do!’
Crawford excels as Goodbody, he tastefully injects the right mixture of overt egotism and blatant stupidity, while Lennon is far more than a bit player. Musketeer Gripweed’s innocence and down to earthness give his final scenes more than a fair amount of emotion. In fact, Lester told Lennon that he was a fine, natural actor, to which John replied, ‘Yeah, but it (acting) is silly though, isn’t it?’ to which Lester could only reply, ‘Well, yes, I suppose it is!’
How I Won The War, as well as balancing the surreal and the absurdly comic, also comes fully equipped with a well-aimed, cuttingly cold, satirical nous. During discussions between Goodbody and his German captor, we learn that these leaders of soldiers from opposing sides share a contempt for their men, as well as a shared class snobbery. Both admit that the massacre of the Jews is not a major concern for them and agree that they themselves are probably both fascists. Fascism among the soldiers is also explored when we discover that Musketeer Gripweed was a former follower of Oswald Mosley. ‘Fascism is something you grow out of’ Grapple remarks to Gripweed at one point.
The film was one of the first of its time to reflect growing concerns over the Vietnam War but was mostly misunderstood on release. Some of this misunderstanding can be attributed to both a lack of focus in direction and that very 60’s sense of ‘anything goes.’ A few too many eccentric touches and an often zanily confusing plot, along with some dated dialogue and inappropriate slapstick, hinder the effectiveness of numerous scenes and the overall flow of the narrative. Yet, there are many moments of strong satire within that still hit their target, with a full on assault of Lester’s trademark dark sardonic humour and barb-wired lunacy never far away. How I Won The War is a movie that needs to be seen more than once to fully appreciate its many charms and biting wit.
FMV Rating ***½