Unlike other stage to screen adaptations like Les Misérables (2012), awkwardly using the gritty aesthetic of a war film, Oh! What a Lovely War remains theatrical in its film version. The wooden floorboards of the Brighton Pier become a makeshift stage for the film’s events, a variety music hall transfiguring the mundane and everyday into symbolic objects: marionettes into soldiers in the game of war; rifle ranges become guns in the trenches; binoculars on the pier become a lookout post. It becomes a wraparound for vignettes from throughout the war, from early negotiations through to its aftermath.
The audience is positioned within other stages too: Maggie Smith’s character’s performance in the theatre to a watching audience (both us as viewers and the theatre audience in 1914); the vast, cavernous enclosed spaces of the train station, full of extras; the white walled palace of the opening scenes, where the nations of Europe negotiate, so bare that it is a theatrical set in itself. Scenes merge from one into the other: fireworks transform into shellfire in moonlit trenches, as easy as a brief costume change or a change in set dressing; with no physical movement but an illusion achieved in seconds.
Attenborough’s visual style helps make the film. His compositions are perfect, riffing on paintings and creating multi-layered images with depth. The film is rife with symbolism, owing much to theatre. There is a recurrent image of soldiers as poppies, holding them before they go to their deaths. In death, they are given red blankets to cover their corpses.
Musicals have never appealed much to me; even the most well-regarded films of Rodgers and Hammerstein, like The Sound of Music (1965), bring actual pain. There are still songs here which make me want to gag, but the incorporation of soldiers singing songs of the time in the trenches create a sense of realism into a highly stylised film.
In some ways, a feminist portrayal of war is created. Not only does the Brighton Pier create a stage for the audience, it also creates a portrayal of the war back home, concurrent to life in the trenches – the southern coast away from the western front. War interrupts the end of the ‘golden’ Edwardian era: families on a June day by the seaside exist side by side to the patriotic marching band, the king’s men who become soldiers in combat.
In this world, women thrive. The suffragist movement, so often overlooked or considered in isolation: Pankhurst’s death, or the victory in 1918, are considered apart from the war, rather than an essential part and consequence of it. A campaigner is given the expected vitriol given to all conscientious objectors at the time; by the film’s end, the men have been buried in white, unmarked graves – with the white specks of the women of the family remaining in focus; women have ascended past the war.
Its satirical edge may not be the most accurate portrait of the war, promoting an image of an incompetent British Army that is not the entire truth; events like the Christmas truce exist somewhere between apocrypha and reality. But it creates a compelling attack on war, even outside of the musical numbers, through a heavy sense of juxtaposition. It could easily descend into offensive territory, belittling human suffering in the way The Producers (1967) satirised through its fictitious musical Springtime for Hitler, yet it never quite gets there.