WW1 on Screen.

(I tried to think of a snappier title but I failed miserably.)

So, as part of my Poppies and Prose feature I thought I’d rewatch and write about two of my favourite WW1-themed films and television programmes.
Just a heads up… I know you’re probably thinking “Finally… maybe Jo’s film and television reviews will be more coherent than her book reviews.”

But.. um, you’d be wrong.
So very wrong…

Oh! What a Lovely War. (dir. Richard Attenborough, 1969)

“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We will not see them lit again in our life time.”

It’s often difficult to explain my love for the film Oh! What a Lovely War.
“Well, it’s… uh, a musical about the First World War.”
Blank face. Then a slight frown.
“A musical? About the war? Isn’t that a bit… off?”

And it does sound a bit off because the first thing you think of when you think of musicals are jovial songs and dance routines and that image doesn’t really go with the image the WW1 evokes.
But Oh! WaLW is a musical and it’s about the war and it’s one of the most beautiful and effective films I have ever seen depicting this period.
All of the dialogue said by people  of the lyrics featured in this film are taken from the songs that the soldiers used to sing. Many you will know but others are parodies using the tunes of famous songs with different lyrics often tinged with the dark humour of the soldiers. One of my favourite examples of this is the song ‘They Were Only Playing Leapfrog’ which is set to the tune of John Brown’s Body . They are all, however, used to spectacular effect and adding a moving accompaniment to many haunting scenes.
The war in this film is set on the end of a pier and the optimism and excitement is almost contagious. Huge queues of men and their families wait to buy their tickets to enter, as the band plays in the background, because they think it’s going to be a lark (and over by Christmas!).
As the years go on however and the horrific truth begins to reach the British shores, the tone of the film shifts. The soldiers are no longer full of youthful enthusiasm but instead grim, black humour: their only weapon against what is happening. The only colour in these scenes, besides the torrential downpours and the muddy trenches, is the bright red of the poppies that are handed out to the soldiers who are about to die. It is extremely poignant.
From the haunting sound of the man singing his true feelings over the sound of the choir singing hymns, to the nurse singing ‘Keep the Homefires Burning’ while placing poppies in the soldier’s uniforms and the men singing about whizzbangs in their trenches to the absurdity of the men in charge, there are so many scenes that will stick with me for a long time.
But it is the final scene, one that is haunting and dizzying, that I will always think of that has become synonymous with the feeling of the war. It is honestly one of the most breath taking and heartbreaking scenes of any film, any genre.

Battles are fought on carousel horses, other battles are watched through picture viewers, the heads of state give their orders from the top of a helter skelter, the soldiers return to the front line on a dotto train, lives lost and yards gained are shown on giant scoreboards.

Oh! What a Lovely War is definitely not to be missed.

Blackadder Goes Forth (Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, 1989)

“I want to see how a war is fought so badly!”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place.”

So, I have this sneaking suspicion that Edmund Blackadder is my perfect man.
Except he would probably look less like Rowan Atkinson… and more like Darren Criss.


Blackadder Goes Forth is one of my favourite television series ever. It is an extremely clever programme, exploring the futility of WW1 by combining humour with memorable characters, hilarious dialogue and Baldrick, poignant moments.

It has a stellar cast: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Tim McInnerny and a hilarious cameo from Rik Mayall (WOOF WOOF.)

It is also extremely educational for it has information on a great alternative to toilet paper (“Soft, strong and thoroughly absorbent”), delicious recipes (“Think you can manage three lumps, Baldrick?”), tips on keeping your moustache tidy after a night’s sleep, the best way to ignore a message you don’t want to receive, how to act if you stand on a mine (“Jump 200ft in the air and scatter yourself over a wide area”) and, of course, how to treat your jet engine like your woman (“Get inside her five times a day and take her to heaven and back!”).
And an end scene which made me cry in my GCSE history class.
(True story. )
It still gives me chills.

Of course this “review” is completely lacking but I could quite easily go on and on about this programme and how much I love it and how, even if it isn’t necessarily the most historically accurate programme in the world, it’s still an important historical source because it is a parody that reinforces the thoughts of a lot of people at the time and subjective views are often just as important when looking at history because history isn’t just about dates and events it’s about what people thought and their perceptions that add the feathers and the flesh to the bare bones of facts and…
AND that’s where I stop because I’m 89% sure I’ve just regurgitated my GCSE coursework at you.
I apologise.

“Who would have noticed another madman around here?”

Watch it.

3 thoughts on “WW1 on Screen.

  1. Oh my god. That final scene in Blackadder *cries*. It was always this amazingly funny show and then suddenly, that ending.

    Have you seen A Very Long Engagement? One of the most beautiful films Ive ever seen and some of the best trench sets/scenes ever.

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