How I Won the War
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How I Won the War

There were many influences that steered the cultural direction in the late sixties to mid seventies. Music was becoming more of a means of personal expression and social activism than ever. The current generation was coming of age questioning everything established by the generation of their parents resulting in a well publicized generation gap. Attitudes towards sex radical changed while many young people embraced psychotropic drug use in an attempt to broaden their consciousness. There is little doubt that the one major influence providing both the foundation and drive for this myriad of change was the war in the small far off jungle country of Vietnam. Protests against the war took a variety of formats from folk songs to publically burning draft cards but one of the most powerful forms this rebellion took was through the art of cinema. Back then the independent film was limited at a few art houses in big cities and the major studios tended to shy away from any movie that overtly spoke out against the government’s involvement in the war. One way around this was to set the events in a more ‘popular’ war, typically World War Two. This way the filmmaker could counter antiestablishment charges by presenting the piece as against war in the broader, more abstract sense. A film that took on Vietnam in just this fashion’ How I Won the War’ has been re-released by MGM as part of their program to revisit DVD release of some of the quirkier titles in their extensive catalog of films. This odd little movie is best remembered as the solo film debut of John Lennon. The movie was released only a few years after the Beatles lead the British revolution on the American music scene taking him from pop star to a role that would dominate his life; political activist. Lennon proved he was interested in much more than performing for the plethora of screaming teenage girl. He was an artist determined to use his celebrity as a means to expose and fight social problems. While the film is uneven it is an important part of Lennon’s personal development reflecting the changes on this individual as a microcosm of what was going on in the entire generation.

This film was part of a then growing movement referred to as ‘Avant Garde’ cinema. To many this was just a fancy way of saying the movie made about as much sense as abstract art does to someone brought up on more tradition painting styles. While many used this appellation in a pejorative fashion there was more than a grain of truth to the comparison. One technique used in impressionist art is to deconstruct a subject into its component shapes and colors. In a similar fashion director Richard Lester breaks down the concept of war into a story that mixes straight forward narrative with segments that are frequently a disjointed string of vignettes and sketches. Lester has commented on this analysis embracing the criticism offering the observation that since war was intrinsically disoriented and irrational it would be impossible and morally dishonest to present it in any other way. Another movie contemporary to this one took the same approach but managed to garner more in the way of success, Robert Altman’s ‘M*A*S*H*’ although Lester never achieve the stylistic heights of Altman he did make several notable movies. When the studio found themselves in an artistic conflict with Richard Donner over ‘Superman II’’ Lester was brought in to finish the film. This did take the movie in a decidedly more comical slant which he continued in ‘Superman III’. Earlier in his career he directed the hysterical film adaptation of the Broadway musical, ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’. Lester employs an unusual combination of stylistic choices including having his characters break the forth wall. This does help personalize the film by letting the audience feel they are part of some inside joke.

Although the story is ostensibly based on the satiric novel by Patrick Ryan, only a few loose threads remain after the script treatment by Charles Wood. Just before writing this film Wood worked with Lennon on the Beatles’ vehicle, ‘Help!’. Consistent with Lester’s direction Woods’ it helps if you had firsthand experience with protesting Vietnam. This movie returns us back to a time when you could be drafted into military service. ‘Stop-gap’ is one thing but nothing like waiting in line for your induction physical to see if you were healthy enough to go to war. Lennon is rough around the edges here just beginning to understand the effect his talent has on fans. The main theme that war is by its nature wrong is pounded home repeatedly with little in the way finesse to soften the blow. Lennon and the rest of the cast lash out with one liners and some physical humor but mostly the comedy is served up decidedly on the dark side. Officers are shown as hypocrites; Nazis painting a bridge not caring aboutr the parade of enlisted med looting everything of value and piece of art they can grab. There is nothing subtle about this film but it has to be kept in mind that this was the style that pervaded the time. Lester and Wood just committed to film the absolute outrage and confusion generated by the war. Some felt it was disrespectful to make a point about Vietnam using the war the older generation willing fought. The counter point to that argument typical was the Nazis were a clear and present global danger but the Vietnam should be able to chart their own course. The film is dated and more of interest to Baby Boomer than the youth of today but it holds on as a historical perspective.

Posted 04/18/11

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