In his first project as a director, Richard Attenborough restaged the First World War on Brighton pier.
Oh! What A Lovely War was an ambitious attempt to translate to the screen Joan Littlewood’s history of the 1914-18 conflict. Her Stratford East stage hit combined music-hall songs, diaries and contemporary commentary in a withering attack on the folly of war and the fatuity of the ruling class.
Attenborough retained the basic structure, anchored in a seaside pierrot show, and opened it out to take in the Victorian splendour of Brighton pier, along with the rolling hills of the Sussex Downs, which stand in for the Western Front.
The film was full of small miracles of production design: John Mills’ Field Marshal Haig directs the Battle of the Somme from the top of a helter-skelter while the mounting losses are posted on a cricket scoreboard; a member of the representative Smith family (Maurice Roeves) gets on the pier’s miniature railway and leaves for the Front; and at the end of the film the last surviving Smith boy follows a red tape from the trenches to a room where the Armistice is being signed . . .
Some of the searing quality of the original was smothered by the scale of the production and the roster of stars in cameo roles, among them Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, and – memorably – Maggie Smith (pictured below) as the raddled old soubrette who lures young men on to the music-hall stage . . . and straight into the welcoming hands of the recruiting sergeant.
General Von Molke
Emperor Franz Joseph
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Field Marshal Sir John French
General Sir Henry Wilson
Sir Edward Grey
Music Hall star
Sir Douglas Haig
Tsar Nicholas II