Oh! What a Lovely War

Oh! What a Lovely War
Oh! What a Lovely War

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Produced by Richard Attenborough
Brian Duffy
Written by Len Deighton (uncredited)
Starring Dirk Bogarde
Phyllis Calvert
Jean Pierre Cassel
John Clements
John Gielgud
Jack Hawkins
Kenneth More
Laurence Olivier
Michael Redgrave
Vanessa Redgrave
Ralph Richardson
Maggie Smith
Susannah York
John Mills
Cinematography Gerry Turpin
Editing by Kevin Connor
Studio Accord Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) 10 March 1969 (UK release)
Running time 144 min

Oh! What a Lovely War is a musical film based on the stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! originated by Charles Chilton as a radio play, The Long Long Trail in December 1961, and transferred to stage by Gerry Raffles in partnership with Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop created in 1963, which was itself inspired by "The Donkeys," Alan Clark's 1961 attack on Great War generalship. The title is derived from the music hall song Oh! It's a Lovely War, which is one of the major numbers in the productions. In 1969 Richard Attenborough directed a cinematic adaptation of the musical. His cast included Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Paul Shelley, Malcolm McFee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, Susannah York, John Clements, Phyllis Calvert and Maurice Roëves. The film has been released on DVD.



Oh! What A Lovely War summarizes and comments on the story of World War I using popular songs of the time, many of which were parodies of older popular songs.

The film uses a variety of symbolic settings to portray vast summations of historical and societal forces at work. Brighton's West Pier, as a location, represents the First World War, with the British public entering at the turnstiles, and General Haig selling tickets. The protagonists are named as the Smith family; which serve as an archetypal British family of the time. The film follows the young Smith men through their experiences in the trenches: Jack (Paul Shelley), Freddy (Malcolm McFee), Harry (Colin Farrell) and George (Maurice Roëves).

The opening sequence is set in a fantasy location which resembles a pierhead pavilion. The diplomatic manoeuvrings, galas, and events involving aristocratic classes set against this location throughout the film, far from the trenches. After various diplomats and aristocrats walk over a huge map of Europe, an unnamed photographer takes a picture of the upper class. After handing two red poppies to the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg he takes their picture, 'assassinating' them as the flash goes off.

The start of the war in 1914 is shown as a parade of optimism. A military band music rouses citizens lounging by the beach to rally round it and follow it - some even literally boarding a bandwagon. They are led to the idea of war, illustrated on film as a cheerful seaside carnival on Brighton West Pier. The first Battle of Mons is similarly cheerfully depicted yet more realistic in portrayal. Both scenes are flooded in pleasant sunshine. When the casualties start to mount, a shocked theatre audience is rallied by singing "Are We Downhearted? No!"

The curtains on the stage lift to reveal a chorus line dressed in frilled yellow dresses, who recruit a volunteer army. They appeal to the patriotism of the crowd with "We don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go". A music hall star (Maggie Smith) then enters a lone spotlight as the curtain is drawn, and lures the roused but still doubtful young men in the audience into "taking the King's Shilling" by singing a song about how every day she 'walks out' with different men in uniform, and that "On Saturday I'm willing, if you'll only take the shilling, to make a man of any one of you." The young men take to the stage and are quickly moved offstage and into military life, and the initially-alluring music hall singer is depicted on close-up as a coarse, over-made-up harridan.

The red poppy crops up again as a symbol of impending death, often being handed to a soldier about to be sent to die. These scenes are juxtaposed with the pavilion, now now housing the top military brass. There is a scoreboard (a dominant motif in the original theatre production) showing the loss of life and 'yards gained'.

Outside, the figure of Sylvia Pankhurst (Vanessa Redgrave) is shown addressing a crowd on the futility of war, but is met with catcalls from the audience, whom she upbraids for believing everything they read in the newspapers. She is finally jeered off her podium by the hostile crowd.

1915 is depicted as darkly contrasting in tone. Many shots of a parade of wounded men illustrate an endless stream of grim, hopeless faces. Black humour among these soldiers has now replaced the enthusiasm of the early days. "There's A Long, Long Trail A-Winding" captures the new mood of despair, depicting soldiers filing along in torrential rain in miserable conditions. Red poppies provide the only bright colour in these scenes. In a scene of British soldiers drinking in an estaminet, a chanteuse (Pia Colombo) leads them in a jolly chorus of "The Moon Shines Bright On Charlie Chaplin", a reworking of an American song then shifts the mood back to darker tone by singing a soft and sombre versions of "Adieu la vie".

An interfaith service is held in a ruined abbey. A priest tells the gathered masses of soldiers that each religion has endorsed the war by way of allowing soldiers to eat pork if Jewish, red meat on Fridays if Catholic, and work through the sabbath if in service of the war for all religions. He also mentions the Dalai Lama has blessed the war effort.

1916 passes and the film's tone darkens again. The songs contain contrasting tones of wistfulness, stoicism, and resignation; including "The Bells Of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling", "If The Sergeant Steals Your Rum, Never Mind" and "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire". The wounded are laid out in ranks at the field station, a stark contrast to the healthy rows of young men who entered the War. Harry Smith's silently-suffering face is often lingered upon by the camera.

The Americans arrive, but are shown only in the 'disconnected reality' of the pavilion , singing "Over There" with the changed final line: "And we won't come back - we'll be buried over there!" Jack notices with disgust that after three years of this nightmare, he is literally back where he started, fighting at Mons.

As the Armistice is sounding, Jack is the last one to die. There is a splash of red which at first glance appears to be blood, but which turns out to be yet another poppy out of focus in the foreground. The film closes with a long slow pan out that ends in an aerial view of soldiers' graves, dizzying in their geometry and scale, as the voices of the dead sing "We'll Never Tell Them" (a parody of the Jerome Kern song "They Didn't Believe Me").

Cast (in credits order)

The Smith Family

Also Starring

Guest Stars


The 1969 film transferred the mise-en-scene completely into the cinematic domain, with elaborate sequences shot at West Pier, Brighton, elsewhere in Brighton and on the South Downs, interspersed with motifs from the stage production. These included the 'cricket' scoreboards showing the number of dead, but Attenborough did not use the pierrot costumes. However, as many critics, including Pauline Kael,[1] noted, the treatment diminished the effect of the numbers of deaths, which appear only fleetingly. Nonetheless, Attenborough's final sequence, ending in a helicopter shot of thousands of war graves is regarded as one of the most memorable moments of the film. according to Attenborough, sixteen thousand white crosses had to be hammered into individually-dug holes due to the hardness of the soil. Although this is effective at symbolising the scale of death, the number of crosses was in fact less than the number of deaths in a single battle.

The film was shot in the Brighton, East Sussex, area of the U.K. in the summer of 1968. Many of the extras were local folk, but a great many were students from the University of Sussex, Falmer, on the outskirts of the city. The film's locations included the West Pier (now virtually demolished), Ditchling Beacon, Sheepcote Valley (the trench sequences), Old Bayham Abbey, near Lamberhurst, Kent (the church parade),Brighton Station and Ovingdean (where hundreds of crosses were erected for the classic finale).[citation needed]

The screenwriter, future novelist Len Deighton asked for his name to be removed from the film's credits after seeing rushes of the film, stating that what was filmed was not as he conceived it. He later stated that he regretted the decision.[citation needed]

The song

The song was written by J.P. Long and Maurice Scott in 1917 and was part of the repertoire of music hall star and male impersonator Ella Shields.[2] Here is the first verse and the chorus:

Up to your waist in water,
Up to your eyes in slush -
Using the kind of language,
That makes the sergeant blush;
Who wouldn't join the army?
That's what we all inquire,
Don't we pity the poor civilians sitting beside the fire.
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
Who wouldn't be a soldier eh?
Oh! It's a shame to take the pay.
As soon as reveille is gone
We feel just as heavy as lead,
But we never get up till the sergeant brings
Our breakfast up to bed
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
What do we want with eggs and ham
When we've got plum and apple jam?
Form fours! Right turn!
How shall we spend the money we earn?
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war.

Two pre-musical renditions, one from 1918, can be found at Firstworldwar.com[3]


  • Golden Globe, Best Cinematography (Gerry Turpin) 1969
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Art Direction (Donald M. Ashton) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Cinematography (Gerry Turpin) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Costume Design (Anthony Mendleson) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Sound Track (Don Challis and Simon Kaye) 1970
  • BAFTA Film Award, Best Supporting Actor (Laurence Olivier) 1970

Radio musical documentary

Charles Chilton,[4] producer of the film, created a radio musical of World War I songs called The Long Long Trail (1962), named for the popular music hall song, There's a long, long trail a winding.[5] The piece was a radio documentary that used facts and statistics, juxtaposed with songs of the time, as an ironic critique of the reality of the war.[6]

References in popular culture

  • BBC Radio 4's 15 Minute Musical portrayed Tony Blair's premiership in the style of Oh! What a Lovely War in a September 2006 episode entitled "Oh! What a Lovely Blair"
  • James Rado, one of the original writers and creators of Hair stated that "what a Lovely War" was what made him want to work on a musical dealing with war at a Google Talks event."@Google: The Public Theatre's Revival of Hair". youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_o7mk4U2do. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  • The song The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling was used as the play-out music for Ned Sherrin's 1964 BBC-TV show Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life.
  • Babyshambles named their live album "oh what a lovely tour" After this film.

External links and references

  1. ^ Kael, Pauline (1971) 'Off with the statues' heads!' in Deeper into Movies, Calder Boyars
  2. ^ Max Arthur (2001) When This Bloody War Is Over. London, Piatkus: 47
  3. ^ firstworldwar.com
  4. ^ Charles Chilton had been personally affected by the war, his father having been killed before he was born.
  5. ^ There's a long, long trail a winding 1913, by Stoddart King (1889-1933) and Alonzo Elliot (1891-1964)
  6. ^ The Cambridge History of British Theatre pp 397-401 Jane Milling, Peter Thomson, Joseph W. Donohue (2004 Cambridge University Press) ISBN 0-521-65132-8 accessed 19 October 2007

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