How I Won the War, Limited Edition Collection (1967/2011)
Starring: Michael Crawford, John Lennon, Roy Kinnear, Lee Montague, Jack MacGowran
Director/Producer: Richard Lester
Studio: MGM [March 20, 2011]
Video: 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9 widescreen, color and B&W
Audio: Digital PCM, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Extras: Theatrical trailer, 28-page commemorative photo album insert with introductory letter from Yoko Ono
Length: 150 minutes [Note: the artwork incorrectly lists 111 minutes]
When Richard Lester’s pacifist protest film, How I Won the War (1967) was initially released, it must have been a shock to Beatles fans. The movie was – and still is – marketed with John Lennon’s name and visage prominently displayed. But this anti-establishment and anti-war surrealist satire is a long distance from the charms of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), or Lester’s other humorous projects The Knack – and How to Get It (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).
In spirit How I Won the War is akin to likeminded black comedies like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and M*A*S*H (1970), which skewer the military mindset and poke fun at the incidents which occur during conflict with the enemy. Michael Crawford – a Lester favorite – plays Lt. Goodbody, an incompetent WWII unit commander, who describes in flashback how he believes his actions in the North African and European campaigns helped win the Great War. His enlisted men, including Private Gripweed (Lennon), Sgt. Transom (Lee Montague of Billy Budd fame) and Clapper (Roy Kinnear) think otherwise and try to get rid of him.
While the idea is sturdy the result is messy and thus How I Won the War resides between a brash failure and cult curio. The film can be a trudge. Lester’s earlier pictures have vitality, but How I Won the War often seems too focused on surrealism with its absurdist narrative structure which shifts linearly back and forth with flash forwards and flashbacks; and post-modern cinematic properties which include characters suddenly talking directly to the audience and color scenes which switch to documentary-like black and white scenes. These transitions can make it difficult to stay engaged. Despite these defects, there are some memorable moments. During one send-up British officers exchange bubblegum cards of war scenes, with one officer asserting “I want school bombing … I do.” The details about Crawford and his men driving behind enemy lines to create a cricket pitch (part of a cricket field) so soldiers will have a touch of home as they push the Germans back is also a magnificently demented scheme.
While Lennon’s face and name are conspicuous on the packaging, Lennon’s part could probably have been accomplished by another actor: he does not bring anything innovative or original to his characterization. Crawford is clearly the star while the best comedic bits belong to the veterans. Kinnear is noteworthy as the chunky Clapper, constantly worried about who his wife is having an affair with while he’s away. Jack MacGowran acts like a madman, imitating officers and wearing a clown costume, although some people may scratch their heads in wonder when he appears in full blackface. Michael Hordern has many well-delivered speeches as a dim colonel whose notion of motivation is to let a few enlisted men die.
How I Won the War is quintessentially English. In-jokes and socio-cultural references – including the persistent use of English slang and British Army phrases – aren’t readily understood by non-British audiences, thus the subtext in the loosely-connected sections is often lost. In an ironic twist, viewers will find it very helpful to turn on the optional English subtitles in order to understand the fast-moving dialogue and sometimes difficult to comprehend English accents.
How I Won the War is part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection, which is a burn-on-demand DVD-R service, which means there are no chapter stops. Instead viewers must click the DVD remote control chapter skip buttons to jump through the film in ten-minute intervals. Besides the English subtitles and a one-minute trailer, there are no other DVD extras. However, early purchasers can – or could – get a 28-page commemorative photo album insert with Yoko Ono’s introductory letter.
The DVD was visually remastered under Lester’s supervision using the best source materials available, although this is not a pristine transfer. There are visible scratches, marks, some flickers and a couple of jumps, although saturation is good and some colors look brilliant, particularly blues, greens and the monochromes in the black and white scenes. Although the DVD uses Dolby D, it does not fix the audio problems from the original 2-channel mono track. Dialogue is easy to hear and comprehend, although voices can sometimes sound thin and weak. Sound effects such as machine guns, rifles and explosions jump out of the speakers. Music is worse and sounds scratchy and edgy, specifically in desert sequences where the famous Lawrence of Arabia theme is used.
How I Won the War distorts reality into a strange mix of silly slapstick, pratfalls, death and glory, and is an attack on the nonsensical notions of modern warfare. While Lester’s intentions may have been realized, the outcome lacks his typical high-spirited élan, the action parts lag, gags fall flat, and the battle-scarred gloom (everyone is killed except Crawford) never transforms into a deeply-felt awareness of the human tragedy.
— Doug Simpson