PRINT January 1968


How I Won the War

How I Won the War, a neither admirable nor contemptible altruism about the villains who coin money making war films, has enough material to stock several war films. Basically, it’s the war story of the fictitious 3rd Troop, 4th Musketeers. Among its luminous personnel are a sweating coward digging himself into holes and hiding under pots and pans; a working-class mocker in steel rims played by the Beatles’ John Lennon; a mad clown who prates Falstaffian brain-dulling lingo; and two zombies—a pink and a green man returned from the dead.

The exploits of the boy leader, Michael Crawford, and his dotty Musketeers, dragging a heavy roller across sand dunes, building a cricket pitch, and so on, are hard to follow on screen but funny to recall. The movie starts with a public schoolboy type in a yellow rubber raft, presumably on a night patrol across the Rhine. It is one of the only humanistic moments: a palpably left-alone scene with one little peppermint stick of a man having believable trouble staying inside a raft which thwarts his every attempt to stay aloft. The raft’s action suggests a bar of soap squirting out of a soapy hand. This is the one scene where Crawford is allowed a margin of gallantry: he is a scissors in this raft trying to remain upright. Everywhere else he is a forlorn figure locked up in a unit of action: the little boy trying to cut a snappy militaristic figure, trying to be a dandy good guy to the men he commands.

Visually the movie is quite impressive, something like a confetti storm in which the spectator never gets to rest. The Moon Mullins comic strip is more realistic than the average shot, a scene on a desert that suggests an old used car lot without cars. The Musketeers, a gaggle of quirks and quacks always bitching about their pontificating but out-of-it leader who gets each one predictably killed, are ant-like, scurrying around in this mediocre B-movie scene. Before the spectator can get his bearings, there is another disturbingly hollow scene: old newsreel shots, given density with inserts of real-life actors. Not too interesting as visual images, these actor-newsreel bits have a ferocious, scabby humor: a wife suddenly appearing on the battlefield to comfort her nearly dismembered husband, saying in a cold, platitudinous voice, “It’s impossible to tell the million tragedies that happen in wartime,” etc. Meanwhile; her soldier spouse, in pain, murmurs: “They hurt, Flo, they hurt,” and his wife breaks her stilted officialese with: “Run ’em under the tap, luv.” The whole situation, with a soldier bloody from waist down, contrasted to the wife’s blitheness, is a real shock for its callousness.

The first question to ask of this not unfunny Surrealism is: “Why is it so weird?” Save for the opening bit of old-fashioned knockabout comedy, apparently inserted to make the spectator feel normal before he gets confused, the movie employs enough technique (collage tricks, non-sequitur inserts, oblique satire, a sound track that keeps most of its jokes to itself) to take care of the five films that are crammed into its flashback-choked two hours.

The mucky sound track is the first major weirdness in this film. The movie is built on the complacent notion, held by young British cineasts, that the most artistically meaningful voice is one so deeply colloquial that it just escapes understanding. In this particular movie, the voices seem filled with a slurring machine or an electric amplifier, with the ends of sentences being either swallowed or lifted.

One of its buzzing, electrocuted, non-stop sounds belongs to an ex-cavalry colonel, played in a possessed, Mad-Hatter vein by Michael Hordern. In one scene this Super Idiot, leaning forward in his tank, symbolizes victory like the figurehead on an old schooner. Conducting an insane court martial, surveying the land from a desert tower, climbing from underneath an overturned jeep (“Damn, damn, damn”), his whole face seems bloodshot, always cocked toward the sky as though he were listening to some private demon that was feeding him ideas and lines. As his voice constantly jaws on about the wily Patton or the common soldier (“Tend to their feet, Youngbody, they’re no good to you without feet”), it becomes fairly clear that he is putting down the genius of sand and tank General Montgomery as a snobbish fantasy-obsessed Officer Nut. But this parrot-like battering ram is a grating agony.

In one part of the flux-like plot—a boring stretch kidding (?) the cultural butchers idea of River Kwai—Crawford says to a noncommittal Nazi: “You’re the first person I’ve been able to talk to in this whole film.” This Fauntleroy Jack Kennedy, whose voice spirals metal Cheerios into the atmosphere, talks bales of words. At the peak of heroism, killing off his patrol, sending up signals to bring down a barrage of bombs, he becomes a titillating figure, not through comic style, but because an apparatus of technique has been slipped between the character and his material. Everywhere, there is this Svengali jamming apparatus between soldiers and their war activities.

Actually, this is the film’s key effect: the cross-references from the small activities of the troop to the hallowed image of large consequential Dunkirks. The misalliance makes strange wit out of a fat man’s last words as he is about to be bayoneted in the chest: “Ah, ’ave a ’eart.” A guy can’t even die without being metamorphosized into and out of newsreel footage before he draws his last breath. Sometimes, Crawford’s nerve-scratching voice circles above him, as though it were carried in a cartoon balloon, while his body unrelatedly goes about its business.

Secondly, the movie’s weirdness comes from its inept image: the movie actually gets into the area of hallucinatory art through the malapropisms of people and locales. Just after the troop has been chopped up in a sortie against a Nazi petrol dump, the furious boy-leader lines them up for a bayonet drill to correct their courage. It’s hard to forget this bungled composition: The Musketeers look like a cast of characters from a greasy spoon near the docks—a smart-aleck dishwasher, a fat and unkempt short-order cook, and an angrily anxious owner who thinks he can get more work by worrying his help to death. An ultra-bright scene, everyone squinting; it is a demoralizing time of day—high noon after a brief defeat—to be taking part in a savagery drill.

Finally, along with the freak accents on a jazzed-up sound track and the misanthropically crude scene, the movie gets its weirdness from cowardliness. It scatters its energy, never staying with any scene enough to exploit it.

Why is this not quite up to the loathesomeness that Lenny Bruce fed, funk-wise, into his excrement-like social conscious humor? At its best, it has a crawling-along-the-earth cantankerousness and cruddiness, as though the war against fascism were being glimpsed by a cartooned earthworm from an outhouse on a fake hillbilly spread somewhere in the Carolinas.

But genuine funk is a pretty rare item, at least as exemplified, say, in Sam Fuller’s vulgar, belittling directing style, W. C. Field’s two-reelers as a sleazy-souled barber or store owner, Jack Oakie’s suggestion of pigskin hide encasing a sneaky conceit and cheapster’s malevolence. It occurs where the insurgent artist views his subject matter from a position so far down on the ladder that his work is knee-deep in muck, misery, misanthropy. Situating himself in the Bowery reaches of technique and exposition, the artist can take pot shots at the accepted notions of Style, Beauty, Gentility. The, debased position allows a desperate film man to hold onto his wit and dignity while creating a richer surface through crudity than he could achieve through niceties, skill, taste.

Since the mid-fifties, funk was discernible in the TV shows of Sam Peckinpaugh, in a scummy Siegal remake of The Killers that far outclasses the Hellinger epic, in parts of Frank Tashlin, Bert Kennedy, and in the young French wizards—Godard-Truffaut-Malle—who apparently breathe funk but are never unpretentious enough to stay in it.

This movie is as far into funk as anyone has gone in 1967 in the major leagues. When Crawford slips into a kind of reverie, he achieves a human effect that is half funk: he gets the qualities in the old English version of the word (fear, cowardice, anxiety) but misses the part that comes in the Negro jazz term (slangy, sweaty, low-down) which his colleagues embody. An agony takes over Crawford’s performance, as though he were moving beyond the wooden, cut-out cartoon figure that is supposed to be synonymous with satire in this film. There is one scene in which he seems to be flying through space, like a mad eagle, as he shows his men how to signal an airplane down. The unmatched toothpick legs never touch the ground, his voice is like metal filings spraying the air. And then when he cozies up to one of his men, to bare his soul, the performance gets lunatic and hypnotic, losing itself in its Jack Kennedy-ish elegiac heartfulness.

However, the film is filled with estheticisms that pad it out and make it insipid: documentary shots, corny references to Lawrence of Arabia, slapstick that is within the reach of Jerry Lewis and not contaminated or unique. In its scabrous, unrefined attack on the Establishment, the movie suggests Lennie Bruce, with one glaring difference: it is limited in its tasteless jokes and material to the mentality of a bright schoolboy. Like Help and the Zero Mostel On the Way to the Forum it suggests an over-aged boyishness almost incapable of relating to the hard-nosed, dry, sardonic war films supposedly under attack here. There is little connection between these soft-cheeked near-baby Musketeers with petulant voices, and the underplayed leanness that makes up the background of Air Force, or They Were Expendable. To cover up the puerility of acting, wisecracking and imagery, everything has to be partially hidden by racing past the jokes, which pile up like cordwood, swallowing any gag that threatens to make itself known as a tiresome gentility.

Manny Farber