John Lennon's Movie Mostly Incomprehensible
by Andrew Sarris
Richard Lester's "HOW I WON THE WAR" (at the Art and York) resembles Jean-Luc Godard's "Les Carabiniers" to the extent that both directors were trying less for an anti-war movie than an anti-war-movie movie. Both movies are intellectual stunts done with all the distancing, alienation, and stylization of which the contemporary cinema is capable. We need not take Brecht's name in vain still one more time, but by now the criticism of high brow vaudeville almost writes itself. When the audience is not amused, it is not meant to be amused. When the audience is not stirred, it is not meant to be stirred. When the audience is not moved, it is not meant to be moved. For most of its hundred minutes, "How I Won the War" is boring in a strenuous sort of way. These provincial American ears found much of the Limey dialect incomprehensible. The only jokes that seemed to survive the Atlantic crossing were those mimicking Churchill and Montgomery, both significantly non-Cockney routines. Empire Loyalist Blimps in Old Albion are rumored to be frothing at the mouth over Lester's lese majeste. Unfortunately, "How I won the War" will seem less relevant to American audiences.
Lester seems to have gambled and lost on a debating trick. Let us suppose along with Lester that World War II was the one popular and justifiable war of this century as an anti-Hitler crusade if only in retrospect. Would it then follow that if World War II were made to seem ridiculous, all wars and all war would be thereby discredited? Not necessarily. Audience reactions to "The Battle of Algiers" indicate that audiences are as bloodthirsty as ever when the "cause" is fashionable enough and even current enough. World War II is actually an easy war to ridicule. It is already an old, musty war that no one cares about. Even the most conventional Hollywood war movies try to jazz up the period by making the Americans more the heavies than the Germans. Who can forget Brando's good Germans in "The Young Lions" and "Morituri?" Or the old world charm of the Wehrmacht in "The Dirty Dozen?" Thus Lester is not particularly shocking when he equates the British and the Germans. The Blimp types will be shocked, of course. That is their profession. But they would be even more shocked if the British were equated with the Fuzzy-Wuzzies.
"Les Carabiniers" is not appreciably funnier than "How I Won the War," but it shows considerably more beauty and feeling. Godard is not describing a particular war, but all war, and he describes it entirely from the point of view of the poor slobs who fight the wars without ever seeing the total picture. Godard respects the dreadful mystery of authority to the last shattering moment when his two riflemen die merely because they were recruited for the losing side. Lester and his writers are too patronizing toward authority, too familiar with its tics and mannerisms. Thus the show is given away before any feeling or humor can be generated. Also, Lester's frenetic style is always undercutting his material to the point that there is never any cumulative effect. It is a style less for wars than skirmishes.
I recently took another look at Buster Keaton's "The General" which came out exactly 40 years ago. There is a fantastically timely sequence involving a square-faced Union general's ordering a train to cross a burning bridge. The train crosses the bridge and plummets spectacularly into flaming oblivion. Cut back to the momentarily dumbfounded general. After a slight pause, he draws his sword from his scabbard and orders a charge. Like C. S. Forester's "The General," (a book Hitler admired), Keaton's General responds to misjudgment in the only way he knows how. Keaton makes his point and gets his laugh, as Lester does not, by playing the General straight and letting the comedy arise from the context. When we first see Keaton's competent, authoritative General, we actually believe that the train will cross the bridge. Keaton doesn't tip his hand in advance. The spectacular sequence of the train disaster is not even the point or climax of the film. It is just something extra Keaton threw in as an instinctive American reaction to the pomposity of military authority. Keaton didn't have to nudge his audience every step of the way to make his point. Perhaps there is too much Brecht in the contemporary cinema, and not enough Keaton.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]