Oh, What a Lovely War…

24 October 2011
Ben Pentreath

I wonder if we are living in extraordinary times? Can I admit that events unfolding in Europe leave me scratching my head a bit—the beautiful sunshine we have had in London today feels remote from the trouble I’m reading about in the paper every day.

And yet… it’s probably true to say that we only know where we are going, when we have already travelled there—and are looking back at today some time from now, in a rear view mirror.

Reflecting on all this reminded me of the brilliant initial sequence of one of my favourite films, Oh, What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough’s remarkable 1969 adaptation of the Theatre Workshop stage production of 1963—a bitter musical set to the sound of marching songs from the Great War.

An extraordinary cast makes its opening dance through a strange, dreamlike cast-iron room, a party of diplomats and aristocrats exchanging pleasantries in an ever-more confused network of alliance, stepping across a vast map of Europe on the floor. The sequence ends with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess of Hohenberg; and so the story begins.

Do you think in that hot June 1914 people had any idea where they were going? I doubt it. And I doubt we have a clue where we are today.

I was moved to try and find a copy of this opening sequence. I’m afraid I couldn’t anywhere; so all I can do is recommend this brilliant film, and show instead the famous concluding scene. Attenborough shot the film in a few weeks in the Summer of 1968, in and around Brighton and East Sussex.  For the finale, thousands of white crosses were placed in a grid in the hills of the South Downs. Irony and anger burn from every scene; none more so than here. I cannot think of a more compelling image in English cinema, as the remaining Smith family women run through the grass downland; the waves of shadows and wind ever more apparent as the camera pulls out, leaving the people as tiny white dots in a vast field of crosses. How distant the long Edwardian Summer must have seemed by November 1918.

4 comments on this post

It brings to mind the lyrics from one of Sting’s most moving songs, “Childrens’ Crusade”: The flower of England face down in the mud/stained in the blood of a whole generation.

I’ve not seen this movie. I will try to.


My father-in-law was in the original Theatre Workshop version of the play. I think it’s about time for a revival to be honest. I shall ask him if he has any idea of where you might find the opening sequence.


It is only the present that exists, war is a result of humans seperating themselves through the act of the ego, how can we be seperate from the beautiful whole that we are as the universe, peace exists through acceptance of what is.

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