I Learned More About World War I From a Musical Than I Did in History Class
‘Oh! What a Lovely War,’ is the Western Front as musical theater—and black comedy
One of the best films about World War I is a musical no one has heard of.
Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front and Gallipoli. These are the movies people think of when they ponder World War I on film. They typically don’t think of director Richard Attenborough’s brilliant and surreal musical, Oh! What a Lovely War.
But they should. The 1969 movie focuses on the British actions on the western front, but tells the greater story of the war in an understandable and fascinating way.
World War I began nearly 100 years ago. The conflict radically changed warfare, paved the way for World War II and reshaped Europe’s borders. However, it can be hard to understand how the assassination of an Austrian archduke by Serbians started a war that killed more than 16 million people.
Oh! What a Lovely War makes for a good introduction. The film’s visual representation of the “entangling alliances” that led to the division of Europe between the Allied and Central powers is clearer than any textbook.
The movie opens with the leadership of Europe mingling in a sparse ballroom, warning each other of the impeding catastrophe and politely telling each other that they hope it doesn’t happen. The assassin Gavrilo Princip kills the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The leadership chooses sides. The war begins.
Then the music and jokes start.
The idea of a musical version of the Great War is ludicrous on the surface but brilliant in execution. Oh! What a Lovely War’s music—as well as much of its dialogue—all come from primary sources. The songs are actual songs that were sung by the British soldiers on the battlefields of Europe.
Many of them are morbid twists on classics. “Auld Lang Syne” becomes “We’re Here Because We’re Here.” A lone soldier perverts “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by drowning out the choir with his mournful hope for the end of the “lousy war.” There’s even a song about mustard gas.
Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first film. We now remember him for his turn as the dinosaur-engineering millionaire John Hammond in the Jurassic Park films, but Attenborough is also an accomplished director, winning the Oscar for best director in 1982 for Gandhi. But this film is where he cut his teeth.
The film also began as an experiment. At first, it was a musical play performed on the stage using primary documents, real letters from soldiers—and real music from the era. It was successful, and Attenborough and his friends became interested in adapting it into a movie.
The film also spoke to the time. It was 1969 and the Vietnam War raged a world away. Britain’s economy was in the toilet and The Troubles with Ireland were at their nadir.
Britain didn’t participate in Vietnam, but it watched and remembered its own Great War, where nearly a million British troops fought and died on the fields of Europe.
The cast is incredible. Ian Holm portrays the feckless French president Raymond Poincare. Laurence Olivier brings to life the stiff British Field Marshal Sir John French. Maggie Smith, who plays a young burlesque dancer, seduces men into military service.
But John Mills—who plays the somber Field Marshal Douglas Haig—steals the show.
We do not remember Haig fondly. As the top British commander on the Western Front, he earned nicknames like “Butcher Haig” for the high casualties under his command. Mills brings a dignity and dark humor to Haig that carries that reflects a very British sense of dark comedy and pathos.
At one point, Haig looks to the sky. “Grant us victory, oh Lord,” he says, “before the Americans get here.”
Despite the grim subject matter and morbid humor, the movie is rated G. There is no blood or explicit violence. Soldiers pluck red poppies to foreshadow their impending deaths. The deaths always happen off camera—but the audience still feels the impact.
Over the course of the film, an entire British family loses every able-bodied male to the trenches while the disconnected upper classes sit in the back, drink champagne and pontificate about the slaughter.
Much of the dialogue of the historical figures—like the music—comes from primary sources. The journals and letters of famous men are their testimony, now on film for all to see.
The tragic events of World War I—the Great War to Britain—are on display in Oh! What a Lovely War. The red poppies of Remembrance Day, the trench songs and the human toll are all here.
I learned far more about World War I from this film than I did in every history class I ever took.