Attenborough at the time was a complete novice when it came to film directing. As an actor he was one of the foremost, having transcended his initial typecasting as slightly shifty and even psychopathic characters, thanks in part to his own efforts at producing with Bryan Forbes. His considerable expertise in the film business was therefore instrumental in bringing Oh! What a Lovely War to the screen, as well as his actor's kudos for attracting an incredible British all-star cast.
This was perhaps just as well, for Attenborough had pitched the idea for the film to the irascible Charlie Bluhdorn at Paramount, boasting that he could get Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgu, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth More, etc, etc. Bluhdorn, ever the showman, promised the money for the film so long as Dickie could get just five of those names. He could, and many more too.
At the head of all-star roll call is John Mills (who first instigated the project with Len Deighton), unusually steely and reserved as Field Marshal Haig, but also capable of a jig or two and a reasonable singing voice for the title number. Not far behind him comes Sir Laurence Olivier, briefly seen but memorably pompous as Sir John French - Haig's predecessor. Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson complete the triumvirate of the Acting Knights, and Jack Hawkins has a wordless (cruelly rendered so by throat cancer) but moving cameo as Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, who in effect signs the declaration of war which sets into motion the biggest human disaster of the 20th century.
These guest appearances by the glitterati of British Theatre are perhaps distracting, and diminish a little from the central story of the Smith family going to war, but otherwise Attenborough has a firm grip on contrasting the high luxury and pomposity of the officers, with the degradation and camaraderie of the men in the trenches.For whatever reason, the entire film was shot, and set, around Brighton, with the old West Pier (nowadays sadly crumbling into the sea since Christmas 2000) as the main focus of the action. Rather akin to Olivier's Henry V(qv), the setting gradually switches to a more grimly realistic setting as the conflict deepens, whilst the officers remain aloof back on Brighton Pier. This juxtaposition is a little odd for me, after a while, when it would be better leaving the pier and focusing totally on the "real" setting.
The satire works at its best during numbers like "They Were Only Playing Leapfrog", sung by several caustic ANZAC soldiers whilst Haig and company hop and skip over each other, as well as the early recruitment songs inside the theatre on Brighton's East Pier with Maggie Smith (and a young Jane Seymour in the chorus) enticing young men onto the stage to go into the Front Line, and especially the incredible closing shot of the film with a whole meadow full (literally) of crosses.The songs in this musical, it should be noted, are all completely from the period in which it is set, including the title number. This gives it an extra sense of authenticity but also poignancy; we often think nowadays how futile the First World War was, and how different attitudes toward it were in those days, but these very same anti-war sentiments were felt at the time, as the songs testify.
This nostalgia was borne out when I visited my grandmother in London on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday in 1988. At her Dalston flat the TV was showing OWALW which I watched with curiosity, and though I didn't expect Nan to enjoy this sort of satirical film, she was nonetheless moved and engaged by the atmosphere of the time conjured by the songs.
More recently, at the Cambridge Arts Cinema (who nervously but perhaps quite appositely showed the film a month after September 11th) where I first saw OWALW in its proper big screen setting, the projectionist didn't realise that there were no end credits, and the film ran right out to reveal a blank white screen.
I defy anyone not to be moved, or "blown away" as they say, by the closing scene of the film. It is a vivid lasting memory of the First World War, which gets the point across with total clarity.