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Published January 1st, 2005 | by Mike Barnard

Oh! What a Lovely War Review

Classification: 12 Director: Richard Attenborough Rating: 4/5

Based on Joan Littlewood’s theatre production, Oh! What a Lovely War is a classic tribute to the soldiers of the First World War, transforming the horrors of the war into a satirical musical. While that may sound like it is in familiar territory to BBC television series Blackadder Goes Fourth, its director, the now Lord Richard Attenborough, manages to poke fun at the Generals while also hailing the enthusiasm the troops showed despite being sent to their doom. It is an often moving film that follows the Smith family as its male members sign up to the army and never come back, leaving the women isolated.

Oh! What a Lovely War features an inspired use of Brighton’s Pavilion and the former glory of its West Pier to enact scenes of diplomacy and deception. In the Pavilion, governments and army generals enjoy balls while they make decisions that will kill millions of others. The pier is transformed into a war-like fairground to reflect the feeling the battle would be fun and won quickly. The song and dance routines both follow this misconception while subtly drawing attention to the realities that would be faced. When the action switches to the real battlefields the trenches are alive with soldiers singing – singing about the relentless and unwinnable fight they are bound up in.

This 1969 classic features some top names from movie history, including the late Laurence Olivier and British greats Maggie Smith and Ian Holm, and impressively staged music hall songs. Throughout the film Attenborough used the traditional image of the poppy to signify death, avoiding any bloodshed on-screen. This emphasises the respect he wishes to preserve for those lost in the war: he prefers to use symbolism over re-enactment of the terrible conditions which works well.

There is also reference made to the fabled Christmas Day truce when the allies and their German counterparts met in no man’s land to exchange greetings. A final, stunning shot serves to underline the massive losses and emotional wilderness many millions of British women found themselves in. Attenborough’s film could easily have fallen into sentimentality, however it retains a sharp wit until this finishing touch giving time for contemplation of the effects of war. The sing and dance over, we are shown the very real truth behind it all.

The DVD picture quality of Oh! What a Lovely War is excellent and admirers are sure to be pleased by its timely release. While it may have become a well-worn topic over the years, this film is a moving and original achievement that remains relevant today. It may not be a conventional war movie, but it has the edge and drive lacking from many of the self-satisfying projects Hollywood often comes out with. When happily singing about a terrible subject becomes this effective, you know it has been done superbly.


A commentary from Lord Attenborough and a three-part documentary covering the history and making of the film. The commentary is a little too weighty as Attenborough is a pain to stress several, admittedly valid, points repeatedly. It is very informative though. The documentaries will be especially of interest to the historian in you, with the usual mix of interviews and clips from the film.

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