In my list of the best WWI films, I excluded comedies. The notable ones that occur to me are ones I saw decades ago, but one of them won the (1976) Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
I’m not completely sure that I saw Richard Attenborough’s film-directing debut, a guest-star-studded 1969 adaptation of “Oh What a Lovely War.” I saw the play three times in two weekends (due to a shortage of date venues in East Lansing, Michigan during my freshman year) and conflate it with the 1967 WWII absurdist comedy “How I Won the War.” The play was a story of “jukebox musical,” i.e., a parade of WWI hit songs. Along with its throwback music, the dialogue draws heavily on quotations of the knaves who were the political and military leaders of the UK in the supposed “war to end wars.” A docu-comedy? A docu-musical?
The earlier (1966) “King of Hearts,” directed by Philippe de Broca (whose masterpiece was “That Man from Rio”) became a cult classic in American college towns a few years later. I thought of it (and think of it) as a movie in which Catch-22’s Yossarian succeeds in being judged crazy. Alan Bates played the soldier who is sent into a French village (Marville) to defuse bombs planted by the retreating Germans late in the war. He takes refuge in the local insane asylum, presenting himself (to the Germans) as the King of Hearts. His subjects offer him the young and gorgeous Geneviève Bujold as royal consort/queen. She tells him where the German bomb is planted, but his detonating it leads to a battle during which the inmates return to the refuge of the asylum. And he decides they are less crazy than the generals.
The most-acclaimed WWI black comedy is set far from the main military action. Directed and co-written by Jean-Jaquess Annaud (Enemy at the Gate), released in English as “Black and White in Color” (1976) the French title was “La victoire en chantant” (which does not mean enchanting victory, but a tuneful victory). Learning that France and Germany are at war (at the start of 1915, news traveled slowly!), some French traders and missionaries in French Equatorial Africa (the film was shot in the Ivory Coast) assemble a troop of “natives” to attack German traders. The backdrop is gorgeous, though the Europeans don’t seem to see that. They are absurd in their jingoism and the attempt to inspire their troops to identify with the glory of France.
The French colonist set up a picnic to view their troops overcoming the Germans(‘), but it turns out that the Germans organized native troops of their own and the carnage of trench warfare is replicated in Africa, after a heretofore pacifist French geographer, Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), takes over and “professionalizes” the French troops.
All three films could be faulted for hammering too long and not very subtly that the officers are knaves (the humanist solider-come-lately is every bit as callous about the lives of “his” troops as the jingoists he supplanted) and the high-casualty war (WWI) particularly pointless.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray