Friday, July 1, 2016

Somme Centenary Meets Brexit: Oh, What a Lovely, 4-Star War


Friday,  July 1, 2016.  100 years to the day that United Kingdom and the Commonwealth troops went over the top into certain death after 5 days of relentless shelling of the Germain line to make the assault easy.

 Thursday, June 23, 2016.  Great Britain votes to leave the European Union.


In the first instance, boys left their homes in the millions (wiki) to help defeat the Kaiser. and his allies.  Unlike WW11 and the Blitz of London, the enemy had not stepped on English soil. And yet an entire generation left their loved ones to defend the idea of national sovereignty: that the Kaiser was not allowed to simply invade Belgium, France et al. and take their lands.

Fast forward 100 years: as it's been somewhat determined--old age pensioners decide they "need their country back" and vote to leave the stabilizing influence of the European Union.

That Brexit would usher in the Somme Centenary is a cruel twist of fate.

That ISIS would assert itself, again, by bombing an airport  in Turkey is a cruel dose of reality.  If the West continues to come apart at the seams, it gives ISIS a huge opening to destroy the whatever and wherever they want.

Oh, what a difference a 100 years make. Can these different generations of Anglo Saxons really share the same DNA? Has the current day forgotten Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" ?

IF I should die, think only this of me;
  That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
  In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,         5
  Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
  
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
  A pulse in the eternal mind, no less  10
    Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
  And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
    In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Here's just one of many tweets of Brits sharing about their granddads, uncles, etc. who went to defend France, not leave it. As on outsider to both England and France, this is all very confusing.




Oh, What a Lovely War: World War One Through the Lens of the 1960s



Oh, What a Lovely War (1969) is the first film Richard Attenborough directed, bringing the 1963 stage revue of the same name (except for dropping the musical's exclamation mark) produced by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop to the screen. I saw it last year for the first time on the invaluable TCM.

The film is a fantastical re-imagining of the stage revue, kicking out the confines of the stage into cinema's fullest power. I found it completely riveting. It is the visualization of a nation adjusting its cultural memory, its national identity, fifty years after the horror.  Much of the action takes place on the pier and pavilion at quintessentially English Brighton, which starts as a fanfare for the Edwardian visitors and slowly gets darker and more sardonic in tone.  The film visualizes many ideas that were in transition for England in the 1960s, including the appearance of a cricket board tallying the deaths on the Somme, with the ground (rarely) gained.

The TCM showing lead me to stumble upon Roger Ebert's original 1969 review of the film when it popped up in a general Google search for the film. He gave it fours stars.

 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.

As a student of WW1, I found it very moving to hear Ebert's own connection to the history:

"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.

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."


As always, his whole review is worth reading.



The stage revue was based on a radio program by Charles Chilton, from 1961. He never knew his father, who died in the Great War, and he wrote a musical documentary in his memory that layered facts and figures about the war within a scripted story,  surrounded by songs of the period. The statistics of the deaths are staggering, and in this form, they were so clear and easy to understand, perhaps for the first time for the nation.

The visuals of Littlewood's film made the juxtaposition of the slaughter with jaunty songs even more powerful than on radio. And so the film is often credited with contributing to the shift in the British cultural memory in the 1960s from a general support for WW1 (though never reaching the "popular" stasis of WW2) to seeing it as an enormous, generation-destroying, soul-crushing catastrophe.

The film is a who's who of British actors: 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.

Pauline Kael did not very much like Oh, What a Lovely War, calling it a "big, heavy anti-war musical in the pukka-sahib tradition of English moviemaking," along with a swipe at Attenborough, who "has a stately, measured approach--just what the 50 musical numbers don't need."




I don't agree. I found it an engrossing tribute to the British nation coming to terms--50 years after the slaughter--with the slaughter and how it plays into their national identity.

The final scene is a helicopter shot of thousands of crosses on a green field. Oddly, they did not go to one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries in Europe for it.  Wiki tells us instead that they put the crosses up on hills around Brighton. It's an extraordinary shot,  done "for real" with no CGI.

Something like this cultural reckoning will need to happen for Brexit, ISIS, 9/11, Syria civil war. and too, too many other events, in the next 50 to 100 years to come. I hope the artists are up to the task.