Louis Malle’s advice for directors trying to make films overseas was to start with a genre piece; he’d began his American career with the tough social drama Pretty Baby, and he later wondered if he should have instead done something in a less realist register, where people would forgive the odd departure from strict naturalism. Nobody would mistake Richard Lester for a social realist, but he took a similar risk when he moved to the UK. He spent the 1960s making perhaps the most quintessentially British films ever made by an American-born director, tackling sexual morality (The Knack… and How to Get It), parochialism (The Mouse on the Moon) and Beatlemania (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!).
The latter led him to How I Won the War, his 1967 black comedy reissued on dual format by the BFI. Starring Michael Crawford but co-starring John Lennon, How I Won the War is now remembered mostly as a source of Beatles trivia; it was Lennon’s one non-musical acting role, it was the first time he wore the circular ‘granny glasses’ that became a life-long trademark, it was the film he saw today (“oh boy!“) at the start of ‘A Day in the Life’. The film’s most interesting connection to 1960s Britain has nothing to do with music, though. It is an entry in the ’60s cycle of anti-war satire alongside Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War, Spike Milligan’s The Bedsitting Room (later filmed by Lester) and Lennon’s own return of his MBE “as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts”.
The progenitor of all this barbed pacifism was the Beyond the Fringe sketch ‘Aftermyth of War’, which still carries a considerable punch today. (Encouraging Jonathan Miller’s Private Perkins to go on a suicide mission, Peter Cook’s general enthuses: “We need a futile gesture at this stage, it’ll raise the whole tone of the war.”) The title of ‘Aftermyth of War’ lays out its broad agenda; it wants to demolish the whole idea of war as being ennobling, a central thesis shared by How I Won the War from its ironically self-aggrandizing title down. Crawford’s Lieutenant Goodbody leads his hapless troupe through a series of major battles of the Second World War, each one heralded by a bubblegum card showing the heroic combat. (Shades of Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and its animated interludes) Cut immediately to Crawford and his men stumbling around, dodging explosions if they’re lucky, being gunned down if they’re not.
Your critic has a planet-sized soft spot for this kind of 1960s anti-establishment satire, but even he must note that it didn’t entirely succeed in dispelling the idea of World War II as a heroic conflict. Watched today, when World War II is something close to a British national religion, the use of real war footage in a madcap comedy can shock in ways Lester may not have intended. The rest of the satire is a mixed bag. Lester’s depiction of the officer class as out-of-touch idiots is a point now too familiar to bear the time he spends on it (though the depiction of an army so overstretched new recruits have to practice with wooden cut-outs of rifles still feels accurate). On the other hand, the treatment of Nazi ideology is chilling in its banality. The one major Nazi character flatters himself on having no personal prejudice towards Jews but kills them anyway, while John Lennon’s Gripweed admits to fascist sympathies that Michael Hordern’s Colonel Grapple brushes off as a boyish excess.
Lester’s Dunkirk film is, then, somewhat different to Christopher Nolan’s, but they both deserve credit for taking one of the biggest pop stars of their era and merging them seamlessly into an ensemble. There’s nothing screen-hogging about Lennon’s performance; for all it rests heavily on his real-life sarcastic wit there’s enough here to make you wish he’d kept acting. The whole cast is good but Crawford’s lead is quite spectacular, offering an early look at the kind of daring Keatonesque stunt work he would bring into the normally uncinematic world of 1970s sitcoms with Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em!.
The star of a Richard Lester film, though, is usually Lester’s direction, and that remains the case here. He later regretted his overuse of fourth-wall-breaking gags, quipping that “Brechtian alienation is a euphemism for the audience’s backs seen disappearing down the street”. It’s true that the barrage of flash-forwards, fantastical elements, to-camera asides and even one brief cutaway to an audience watching the film ends up muddling even this slender story. What it hasn’t done is dated; this still feels massively different to anything you’re going to see at the cinema today. It does resemble Godard, as a lot of Lester’s work does, but it shows him building on this inspiration. After all, the challenge of mixing loose, improvisational satire with the level of planning necessary for a war movie had defeated no less an exponent of Godardian style than, er, Godard in Les Carabiniers, the least-remembered of his 1960s hot streak.
How I Won the War is far from perfect but it deserves much more than the obscurity it’s fallen into, and this BFI set looks set to ensure that. An early contender for extras package of the year, it contains appreciations from John Landis and Lester’s acolyte Steven Soderbergh, but the real treat is the additional short films. Designed to set Lester’s film in its social context, it addresses pop music (Peter Turner’s adrenaline-spiking proto-lyrics-video Head Rag Hop), satirical humour (Plod, a rediscovered 1971 short starring The Scaffold which doubles as a neat Liverpool travelogue) and, most rewardingly, pacifism. Animated Genesis and A Short Vision are two cartoon shorts by the husband-and-wife team of Peter and Joan Foldes, the latter of which caused outrage when it was screened on The Ed Sullivan Show. A startlingly grisly depiction of atomic war, it is an essential part of animation history.