on August 14, 2012
Never spoof a spoof is an old cinematic adage - yet Richard Attenborough's directorial debut is not only a spoof of a spoof of a fake, but also perhaps his most daring and artistic production, even ahead of Shadowlands. Unfortunately, he should have listened more carefully to that adage. Adapted from a stage play based on Alan Clark's 1961 "history" of generalship in the First World War (really more a novel and, being written to make money rather than add to knowledge, designed to be as tendentious and controversial as possible) about the corruption and incompetence of First World War generals, this film sets out to do two things - lampoon the arrogant, out of touch and wealthy elites who dominated the British Army and led them to disaster via total incompetence and ignorance, and portray the horrors of the trench war as a counterpoint, usually accompanied by an ironical song or three.
The second is brilliantly done. It is hard to think, in a field of stiff competition, of a movie that does it better (although it is a mug's game trying to keep track of the fortunes of the Smith family unless you physically take notes, as the vignettes are so confusingly cut together). The first is not very well done at all, partly because it has to derive from myth and misinformation that grates ever more with time. General Haig starts the war selling tickets for Brighton Pier, tricking men into buying tickets for the front instead. He seldom visits France, staying in the comfort of Brighton Pier, aimlessly sending thousands of men to their deaths in random attacks designed for a war of attrition, while he dances with his wife and drinks champagne. His only real concern, revealed in his private prayers, is for victory "before the Americans arrive". The staff officers boast about how they had the odd shell land near their HQ, as the men listening cower from machine gun fire and gas attacks. Sir John French casually ignores the views of the one man in the army who knows what he is talking about (a surprisingly generous portrayal of the hard-right, Irish-hating general Sir Henry Wilson). The problem is, that this aspect had much more to do with the anti-establishment, anti-war memes of the 1960s than with the realities of the war. Haig, for example, was the only soldier in the entire British army known to have spent the entire war in France, where he began his career as a battlefield general at Mons (where part of the action actually takes place). Although he was unquestionably guilty of needlessly wasting lives in the belief that "one more push" would do it, the film deliberately twists that into a claim that he was interested only in victory, not the lives of his men - this about a man who after the war devoted his life to fundraising for veterans until his death at a comparatively young age from overwork. The mysterious and total absence of junior officers from the trenches (troops are commanded by sergeants in combat in this film) allows a strong focus on the men, again suiting the "bottom up" perspective of the 1960s - but it is also a false realization. Junior officers, leading their men in attacks, spent a huge amount of time in the trenches and were actually even more likely to be killed than the men under their command (so did junior generals spend time in the trenches, who often remained as the battalions of their brigade were rotated through the front line, although they were killed less often as they were not encouraged to go over the top). This film, and later Blackadder Goes Forth, helped to create irritating myths about the First World War that are only now slowly being dispelled. It's worth noting to that some of the sub-plots misfire too - even apart from the Smiths, the photographer who pops up everywhere as an assassin, announcer, waiter, Salvation Army band conductor and finally as Death, singing songs and smiling in sinister fashion along the way, is at best a distraction and at worst incredibly bewildering. The idea was presumably to link all aspects of the war together and show that all were affected by its tragedy - but it doesn't really work.
However, those are really side issues. Watch it and play spot-the-star - Laurence Olivier, John Mills, Dirk Bogarde, Maggie Smith and practically the entire Redgrave dynasty - as they make fleeting cameos. Watch it for the bitter humour of the men, superbly coaxed out by Attenborough and realistically portrayed. Watch it for the cunning way games and shows cut away to front line situations to enhance the feeling of two separate worlds and the belief at home and among the men (at first) that war was a game. Watch it for the few but truly brilliant moments of pathos and grandeur - the church parade, the shots of the wounded after Passchendaele. Watch it above all for one of the great final scenes in all movie history: the dead, symbolised by thousands of crosses the women walk among as white dots in aerial shot, singing to the small girl that she'll never know the truth about war, because they will never tell her.