This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
It's a mistake to review "Oh! What a Lovely War" as a movie. It isn't one, but it is an elaborately staged tableau, a dazzling use of the camera to achieve essentially theatrical effects. And judged on that basis, Richard Attenborough has given us a breathtaking evening.
I wasn't lucky enough to see Joan Littlewood's original London stage production of "Lovely War," back in the early 1960s. I was in London at the time, but I was a rash youth and went to see the Windmill girls instead. No matter. It's a fallacy, I think, to judge a film on the basis of how faithful it is to the book, or to the play, or to anything other than itself.
Like most people, I know World War I at second or third hand, through such sources as Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That." The most dramatic point Graves makes is that the war almost literally exterminated the generation that would have ruled Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Something like 90 per cent of the field officers were killed on some fronts. Joseph Losey's film "King and Country" shows us Tom Courtenay as the lone survivor of his original unit; every other man had been killed, and many of their replacements had died as well. This was apparently fairly common.
And so this tragic event sank into the bones of the British memory. America, which came into the war rather late and sustained much lighter casualties, could afford the luxury of a "lost generation" in the 1920s. England literally lost her generation; it was dead and buried, and we seem to see it beneath the countless crosses stretching out behind John Mills in the last, stunning graveyard shot in "Oh! What a Lovely War."