Oh what a lovely war
When the casualties start to mount, a theatre audience is rallied by singing “Are We Downhearted? No!” A chorus line dressed in frilled yellow dresses recruits a volunteer army with “We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go”.
A music-hall star (Maggie Smith) then enters a lone spotlight, and lures the still doubtful young men in the audience into “taking the King’s Shilling” by singing about how every day she “walks out” with different men in uniform, and that “On Saturday I’m willing if you’ll only take the shilling, to make a man of any one of you.”
The young men take to the stage and are quickly moved offstage and into military life, and the initially alluring music hall singer is depicted on close-up as a coarse, over-made-up harridan.
The red poppy crops up again as a symbol of impending death, often being handed to a soldier about to be sent to die.
These scenes are juxtaposed with the pavilion, now housing the top military brass. There is a scoreboard (a dominant motif in the original theatre production) showing the loss of life and “yards gained”.
Outside, Sylvia Pankhurst (Vanessa Redgrave) is shown addressing a hostile crowd on the futility of war, upbraiding them for believing everything they read in the newspapers. She is met with catcalls and jeered from her podium.
1915 is depicted as darkly contrasting in tone.
Many shots of a parade of wounded men illustrate an endless stream of grim, hopeless faces. Black humour among these soldiers has now replaced the enthusiasm of the early days.
“There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding” captures the new mood of despair, depicting soldiers filing along in torrential rain in miserable conditions.
Red poppies provide the only bright colour in these scenes. In a scene of British soldiers drinking in an estaminet, a chanteuse (Pia Colombo) leads them in a jolly chorus of
“The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin”, a reworking of an American song then shifts the mood back to darker tone by singing a soft and sombre version of “Adieu la vie”.
At the end of the year, amidst more manoeuvres in the pavilion, General (later Field Marshal) Douglas Haig replaces Field Marshal Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces.
Haig is then mocked by Australian troops who see him inspecting British soldiers; they sing “They were only playing Leapfrog” to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”.
An interfaith religious service is held in a ruined abbey.
A priest tells the gathered soldiers that each religion has endorsed the war by way of allowing soldiers to eat pork if Jewish, meat on Fridays if Catholic, and work through the sabbath if in service of the war for all religions.
He also says the Dalai Lama has blessed the war effort.
1916 passes and the film’s tone darkens again.
The songs contain contrasting tones of wistfulness, stoicism and resignation, including “The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling”, “If The Sergeant Steals Your Rum, Never Mind” and “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”.
The wounded are laid out in ranks at the field station, a stark contrast to the healthy rows of young men who entered the war.