Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.
United Kingdom, 1969. Accord Productions.Screenplay by Len Deighton, based on the musical play by Joan Littlewood, from the play by Charles Chilton. Cinematography by Gerry Turpin. Produced by Richard Attenborough, Brian Duffy. Production Design by Donald M. Ashton. Costume Design by Anthony Mendleson. Film Editing by Kevin Connor. Golden Globe Awards 1969. New York Film Critics Awards 1969.
Already a celebrated actor, Richard Attenborough made his directorial debut with this bloated, partly enjoyable war epic. Based on the stage play of the same name, it re-imagines the first World War as a day at the carnival, with the Smith family the main focus of participation as their sons take “rides” at the fair which get them placed in the front lines of battle. Among the attractions are music hall performances that give the film’s enormous cast ample opportunities to perform songs that are authentic to the period (and lest we accuse the film of a disrespectful attitude towards the deceased soldiers, there’s a disclaimer opening the film that verifies this for us). While sassy in its ridicule of the minute political maneuvers that result in mass murder, the film is uneven in tone and structure: Attenborough only spends part of the film’s mammoth 160-minute running time in the make-believe fairgrounds, the rest of the time switching to genuine battleground sequences (such as the Christmas cease fire, recreated so beautifully in Joyeux Noel many years later) without any explanation. The cast is peppered with familiar faces and celebrity cameos, including Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, an outstanding Vanessa Redgrave and, in one of the film’s most chilling sequences, Maggie Smith as a musical singer who recruits soldiers with her beauty and promises of kisses and then turns out to be the gateway to Pinocchio’s island. Watch it for the beautiful photography or if you love the actors (and look for Jane Seymour making her film debut behind Smith!), otherwise it’s quite a chore to endure.