Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Now on DVD: Richard Lester's How I Won the War (1967)

Posted By on 03.28.12 at 01:28 PM

John Lennon and Michael Crawford, parodying their nations twits
  • John Lennon and Michael Crawford, parodying their nation's twits
Out of print for several years, Richard Lester’s grand-scale comedy How I Won the War (1967) is available on DVD again courtesy of the MGM Archive Collection (Facets has had it for rent for a couple of weeks). War may be remembered mainly for John Lennon’s involvement—the movie provided him with the circle-frame glasses that became central to his image—despite the fact that he plays only a supporting character. If not for its connection to Lennon mythology, the movie most likely would be forgotten, as it’s so steeped in the zeitgeist of 1967 that the jokes practically require footnotes today. And to make things more frustrating, the aggressively ramshackle style prevents the ideas from coalescing into any appreciable shape. Still, the movie betrays the energy and imagination of Lester’s best work (A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia), making it the sort of A-for-effort failure that reveals as much about a major artist as a genuine success might.

It’s certainly easier to forgive on DVD, since the format allows you to watch short stretches at a time, and appreciate the humor before it wears out its welcome. The funnier gags tend to be literary in nature, mocking the institutional speak of the British ruling class. The overeager twit hero, Lieutenant Ernest Goodbody (played by Michael Crawford as a variation of his milquetoast character from Lester’s The Knack... and How to Get It) narrates the film, and his commentary contains gems like “We were first deployed to Egypt, or so it seemed at the time.” And Lennon, as to be expected, gets a stream of snarky non sequiturs, some of them amusing. The visual gags revolve around seeing music-hall-style acts (ventriloquism, black face, etc) in a World War II setting. Perhaps this seemed like a good idea at the time, when a public opposed to the Vietnam War may have enjoyed seeing war rendered so absurd (curiously, Lester claims in Getting Away With It, his book-length interview with Steven Soderbergh, that he and Wood didn’t intend the movie to be an antiwar satire). Yet Lester’s purposely disorienting, Godard-inspired editing tends to nullify the impact of the jokes

A cubist music hall revue sounds interesting in theory—though if you disagree, you should probably avoid How I Won the War altogether—and it’s the film’s theoretical nature that makes it worth revisiting. In an era where so many comedies seem indifferent to form (J.R. Jones has noted the particularly deleterious effect of improvisation), it’s refreshing to watch a comedy that errs in the other direction. Lester’s characters often break the fourth wall, change outfit from one shot to the next, or disrupt the comic tone with unexpectedly grave confessions. In doing so, they embody the director’s exciting curiosity of how movies are made and unmade.

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