I’ve always felt that Richard Lester’s reputation as a director is a little unearned. I have a serious hatred of all things Beatles, but I do reluctantly admit that A Hard Day’s Night is a bit of a classic. He is best remembered for his ’60s work, but if you watch The Knack …and How to Get It now, it’s safe to say that the 10-minute rape joke that ends the film will leave you cringing. His most interesting films came at the very end of the ’60s: the hallucinatory puzzle of a romance that is Petulia and his proto-Gilliamesque apocalyptic comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, both films that are incredibly flawed but fascinating.
How I Won the War sits squarely in the middle of the awfulness of The Knack and Lester’s later films of the ’60s. It’s an absurdist adaptation of Patrick Ryan’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. If it’s remembered at all, it’s for John Lennon’s small role as the BUF-member-turned-British-soldier Gripweed, which was his only non-musical film role. Michael Crawford, who was so irritating in The Knack, leads the film as Lieutenant Earnest Goodbody, who essentially narrates the film and is the “I” of the title.
It’s not completely awful, but the plot is nearly non-existent. Instead, it’s just a series of increasingly surreal vignettes (not necessarily a bad thing). The choice to have the dead soldiers live on but painted as various colours is an inspired bit of surrealism. However, it’s an almost impenetrable film and its humour falls flat too often. And there is a random character in blackface for absolutely no reason. It’s grabbing from everything, including the French New Wave, Luis Buñuel, the Theatre of the Absurd, Catch-22, Voltaire and specifically Candide, and commentary on the Vietnam War, but none of it sticks around long enough to work. As a statement on the absurd nature of war, it is too fractured to be effective. It’s a fascinating misfire by a talented director, but as so often with his films, it’s really just his friends improving silly scenes, which goes all the way back to his first short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film.
This is the third film from Richard Lester to be released by BFI, after The Knack and The Bed-Sitting Room, and for this release they included the Trailers From Hell for those two titles, Allan Arkush and John Landis supply the respective commentaries. The biggest feature is probably the audio of Steven Soderberg interviewing Richard Lester in 1999. Neil Sinyard provides an audio commentary track, and there is a little under a hour of various short films. The first pressing includes a booklet with new writing on the film.