“How I Won the War,” released on DVD over four decades after its theatrical debut in 1967, is notable for two reasons. First, it’s the only film that Beatle John Lennon appeared in without his fellow band mates in tow, and second, it’s a liberal, anti-war film that was reamed by Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times
and Bosley Crowther in the New York Times
Lennon plays a bit part as a soldier under the command of British lieutenant Earnest Goodbody (Michael Crawford), whose incompetence continually dwindles his troops as they fight the Axis in North Africa and Europe.
Director Richard Lester, the man behind Beatles films “Help!” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” splices grainy, tinted documentary footage into his film, but detracts from the weight of this footage through gag comedy and an apparent lack of direction throughout.
Charles Wood wrote the screenplay, though it’s hard to understand what he wrote exactly. The dialogue is spoken so fast that with the British accents it’s nearly impossible to understand. And the storyline is mashed and incoherent, seemingly without a purpose or end-point in sight.
I think the acting is good, I think, but I couldn’t really tell since I didn’t know what the actors were saying. Lennon’s pretty funny, but his character is a prankster, whose gags are immature and childish.
The film’s interesting camerawork and editing keep it from being an entire waste of time, but ultimately “How I Won the War” is only half as entertaining as its critiques, as average films sometimes are.
Ebert attacked the film’s advertising campaign, which asserted the movie as a work of art simply because it “starred” an artist. He wrote of the film: “Simply by appearing in this film, Lennon has cloaked it in his personal immunity. We know Lennon isn’t phony. Therefore, the movie can’t be phony, right? Wrong.”
Ebert’s critiques of the film rightly include the film’s highly accented (and thus, barely intelligible) dialogue, British in-jokes, and, more importantly, general carelessness of subject. He concludes his review saying, “I got no impression from this film that Lester really, personally, cares very strongly one way or the other about war. It was only a currently fashionable subject, a good excuse to make a movie. Especially if John Lennon would be in it.”
Crowther doesn’t hold back either, criticizing the film’s handling of the cruelty of war, and the offensive way that a Nazi officer passes over the “inconsequentials” of the holocaust. He concludes, “I am afraid Mr. Lester has not added a single discouragement of war, but simply a little discouragement toward patronizing too-pretentious films.”
The lesson from this: Story is everything. Being politically correct counts for next to nothing at the box office.