Oh! What a Lovely War, All Quiet on the Western Front

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Release dates: Nov. 7, 2006, Feb. 6, 2007

The stupidity of most wars was the timely theme of Richard Attenborough's debut directorial effort in 1969, "Oh! What a Lovely War," and it is timely still, now that Paramount has released a Special Collector's Edition (retail $14.99). Based upon a stage musical that showcased the nostalgia of songs popularized by World War I, it simultaneously and ironically explored the absurdity and horror of the war itself. Like Ron Howard, Attenborough is a frustratingly bland actor-turned-director who has still been capable of winning Oscars ("Gandhi") and creating masterpieces ("Shadowlands"), even though his sluggish feel for the dynamics of cinema sometimes outweighs his genuine talents for guiding performers and telling stories. Lovely War is a particularly tricky challenge, as it has several different modes of deliberate artificiality, and passes somewhat indiscriminately from one to the next-essentially, the sequences depicting the diplomats and generals plotting and executing the war are the most abstract, with the least decoration (emphasizing the detachment of the characters from reality); the sequences that show the war's effects on the home front in England (which were shot on Brighton Pier) have more detailed backgrounds but are still highly fanciful, presenting the promotion of the war as if it were a carnival show; and the scenes set on the battlefields and in the trenches, some of which were also shot on location, are the most real, although there is still a staginess to their conceptualization (throughout the film, much of the dialog and all of the speeches are also drawn from historical texts). Therefore, while the utilization of cinema opens up the scope of work, it does not change the basic theatricality of its premise or structure. While in 1969 the rediscovery of the songs was something of a novelty, today it is less so, and the music has no showstoppers or emotional crescendos-it mostly just underscores the obvious (Minister: "The choir will now sing 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus,' as we offer a silent prayer for success in tomorrow's onslaught.") or shares in the naughty alterations the soldiers made to the songs of their day. The film is peppered with cameo appearances by famous British actors, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave (perhaps the film's most chilling sequence, she plays a musical hall performer who coerces audience members to enlist), Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York and many more, and it is fun spotting them or trying to spot them, in compensation for the lack of a distinctive central character. The 144-minute film was a boxoffice failure and understandably so, because the war was a depressing and pointless failure even for the victors, and the film, following its arc and burdened with Attenborough's limitations, could not break free, artistically, of its topic's inherent spiritual pessimism. But the movie remains a fairly unique accomplishment that will definitely be of interest to those who are open to its aspirations. It also remains a vital work, for there is not a single speech or line of dialog presented within the film in support of the war that you haven't heard on the evening news sometime in the past four years, if not in the past week.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is accurate, though hues are often deliberately subdued, and the image seems a touch soft in spots. The monophonic sound is passable, and there are optional English subtitles, along with a comprehensive 70-minute retrospective documentary.

The sleepy-voiced Attenborough supplies a commentary, although the talk gets sparser during the film's second half. He speaks a little bit about shooting various scenes and a lot more about what is happening on the screen, but he also manages to share an opinion here and there about the social climate surrounding WWI. "The war went on. The lightheartedness and the joviality of the war, as the years went by, four long years, the circumstances became a little less certain. The music and the lyrics took on a different kind of atmosphere altogether, and even the entertaining of the troops, although it had, superficially, the recreating of the bonhomie that existed, at the end, the songs as such, applauded though they were, they had a poignancy and a very touching element which eventually overtook almost everything."

***

Lewis Milestone's 1930 classic that looked at World War I from the German perspective, "All Quiet on the Western Front," has been reissued by Universal as a Cinema Classics title (retail $14.98). We reviewed Universal's initial release in March 1999. It ran 131 minutes, while the new presentation runs 133 minutes. The full screen black-and-white picture on the earlier release was of erratic quality, but the new presentation, although it shows its age, is consistently nice. There is a natural amount of grain and inevitable wear, but the image is always clear, with detailed contrasts and no distracting markings. The framing of the image is different, generally adding more picture information to the top and the two sides, but losing a little on the bottom. The monophonic sound is less distinctively improved, but is clear throughout, with minimal distortion.

Lew Ayres stars as a young recruit who undergoes the panoply of the wartime experience. Along with "The Big Parade," the film established many war movie cliches, but the battle scenes are still thrilling and the drama advances from situation to situation at a reliable pace, preventing the viewer from becoming restless with what are now predictable sequences, despite the lengthy running time. There are optional English and French subtitles, a trailer and a 3-minute introduction to the film by Robert Osbourne, who talks mostly about Ayres.

The complete database of Doug Pratt's DVD-video reviews is available at dvdlaser.com. A sample copy of the DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter can be obtained by calling (516) 594-9304.

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