by FREDA BRUCE LOCKHART
HERALDED by the Sun day Telegraph's film critic, Margaret Hinxman, as a test case for the British film industry. the triumph of Oh! What a Lovely War ("A," Paramount) is already superbly assured. "Oh! What a Lovely Film" thunders The Times' headline over its re view, with . indisputable truth.
As a piece of cinema, this is a glorious entertainment, light, fantastic, sardonic. tragic. As a directorial debut by actor Richard Attenborough it is a four de force to have turned the horrors of World War One into a sublimated pierrot show with a pavilion of its own on a fantasticated Brighton Pier which opens out to the mud of the trenches or fields of Flanders poppies.
Basically the film is a sustained counterpoint of the beloved first war songs, from -Tipperary" to "Keep the Home Fires Burning", illustrated by scenes of the heroism of the troops and the ineptitude of their leaders staring at a scoreboard of massive casualties.
The production design is magical, making the firework display look a squalid small sideshow on this light white pier. The cast is stupendous: perhaps an attribute to the affectionate admiration in which Richard Attenborough is held by his whole profession.
Half the stars in Britain seem to be playing "bit" parts or revue turns, and playing them superbly. Where so many excel it is difficult to know whom to pick out: Sir John Gielgud's Count Berohtold of Austria; Ian Holm's President Poincard; Maggie Smith's music hall turn of the recruiting song "We don't want to lose you, but we feel you ought to go"; Vanessa Redgrave's suffragette or. most cruel of all, John Mills's
For me the most brilliant of these star cameos is Laurence Olivier's Field Marshal Sir John French, and I am normally a less than ardent Olivier fan.
Apart from these spectacular star turns and the mastery with which Attenborough keeps the picture bubbling and shimmering like a ballet. the film's great strength is the evocative power of its old songs. As Noel Coward wrote long ago "strange how potent cheap music is."
It may be fanciful to trace another strain of Coward influence to Richard Attenborough's young success in Noel Coward's "In Which We Serve," of which "Lovely War" is in a way the obverse, though with a comparable grasp of the heartstrings.
Coward's picture romanticised war at sea and the British war effort; Attenborough's is a fashionably anti-romantic denial of all war or any glory in it. But these songs are not cheap; they are an authentic expression of a
popular spirit which prevailed also in the last war and throughout the blitz.
Until well past half-time (the film has no intermission) they persuaded me it would prevail in similar circumstances (which God forbid!) again. But "Lovely War" is anti-patriotic, anti-establishment.
I don't know how true in detail is the lampooning (out of their own mouths) of the war leaders. 1 am sure that it is ungenerous in denying all virtue to any grade of officer (Attenborough is reported as reeretting the omission of any tribute to the "officer class"), and certainly unjust when it comes to sneer at religion.
Ribald songs to hymn-tunes are a national pastime from an
early age, but not with the venomous vulgarity of this church miracle or the offensive scorn for the chanlain. "Oh! What a T ovely War" may want to cton military war. but it nrovides powerful impetus to class war.
nevertheless achieved an imaeinative creation. not lust a carnine comment: and has succeeded in bringing it to a
peaceful and dignified close among red poppies and white crosses.
Madonna's Gold ("A," Odeon. Leicester Square.) has a cast almost as star-studded. in Hrillywood 'movie terms. as "Oh! What a Lovely War" in British—Gregory Peck. Omar Sharif, Lee J. Cobb. Raymond Massey. Eli Wallach. Edward Cl. Robinson. Eduardo Cian, elli right down to the second generation with John Garfield, Junior.
Hundreds of horses and Indians; all this and Camilla Spars, and Julie Newmar. too. Yet although the director is the competent and versatile Briton, J. Lee Thompson. he has made a thoroughly traditional modem version of a classic Western.
All the conventional ingredients are here, except practising cowboys; there are Indians enough to compensate. The basic movement is the trek across the big country by a typically mixed group in search of hidden treasure.
The seekers are led by "Colorado." a Mexican-type bandit with flashing teeth, sadistic glee and — as he is played by Omar Sherif — a streak of appealing charm. He conducts a pretence of lovehate friendship with Mackenna (Gregory Peck). marshal of an unruly community dominated by a legend of hidden gold at the canyon's end.
Among the rivalries. stabs in the back. circling buzzards and weird Aztec (or are they natural phenomena?) monuments. the only novelty of interest is the vein of suspense over whether the gold on the map really exists or is only a myth made by the old blind man (Edward G. Robinson). A detachment of U.S. cavalry attacks, but its villainous sergeant (Telly Savalas) wastes neither time nor scruple over joining the gold-hunters.
By no means a great Western or a seriously original one, this is a thoroughly efficient, vigorous and violent example of the genre. It is spoilt for me only by anxiety over the screaming, snorting horses, floated down rapids on a raft, forced across a breaking suspension bridge, or just targets for bullets or arrows.