Monday, March 23, 2009


A unique film which I enjoyed immensely, but which is certainly not for all tastes. On the surface, it seems to have a lot in common with CHU CHIN CHOW; both are strange musicals based on hit stage shows and both have production numbers about battle and death. The director, Richard Attenborough, has deliberately retained the staginess of the piece, while seemingly paradoxically opening the film up quite a bit. In a large, ornate, white ballroom, various European heads of state gather to discuss the political scene. We soon realize that this is not a literal meeting or conference, but a surreal, symbolic representation of how Europe slid into the First World War. The ballroom is set up on a pier at Brighton, a popular seaside tourist attraction (imagine a cleaner Coney Island), and the entire film takes place there, though some scenes of warfare were shot more naturalistically elsewhere, with the war itself presented as a side attraction (the phrase "World War I" is spelled out in neon on an arch under which the soldiers pass as they go off to battle--pictured below). Once the war has begun, we follow the fate of one family, the Smiths, as all the sons become soldiers and the women volunteer as nurses.

The war itself is shown as a series of sketches and musical numbers, mostly popular songs of the era with the lyrics tweaked a bit for dark humor, satirizing the leaders (political and military) and the rich, who pretty much remain above the literal fray, and sympathizing with the soldiers, mostly poor and working-class men dying by the hundreds of thousands as England settles on a policy of suicidally throwing as many men as possible at the enemy in the hope that sheer numbers will win the day. The Smith family members provide a slim narrative thread, but most of the best bits don't directly involve them. Maggie Smith plays a music-hall tart recruiting boys by singing naughtily about having sex with soldiers and sailors. Jean-Pierre Cassell is at the center of a wonderful number which uses a merry-go-round as the central prop to show the fantasy and reality of warfare. The most effective bit is an open-air church scene which juxtaposes traditional hymns led by a minister with cynical parody hymns sung by the troops. The famous "Silent Night" Christmas truce is one of the few war moments presented fairly realistically and it's also a non-satirical highlight of the movie (though it does include one of the funniest parody songs, "Christmas Day in the Cookhouse"). A slew of stars appear in small parts, most notably Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and her father Michael, Ralph Richardson, and Dirk Bogarde. John Mills has the most substantial role in the film as real-life Field Marshall Douglas Haig who is seen playing leapfrog (literally) with other officers and having soldier casualty numbers put on a giant scoreboard. At nearly 2-1/2 hours, it is a bit long, especially since the anti-war message gives the film a rather one-note feel (though you'll definitely want to stick around for the last stunning shot), but it is worth seeing especially if you are looking for something completely different. [DVD]

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