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"How I Won The War" - (DVD-R on Demand)
Wayne Klein
Studio: MGM On Demand
Release Date:
Special Features:

Trailer, booklet Rated: NR ---


Before Richard Lester became well known for making films with The Beatles he was a filmmaker with a larger agenda--satire. Yes, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" both have their satirical elements but they tend to be less focused on what later became more of a preoccupation in his humorous films which was to focus on some element of social convention and using satirical elements. Lester's best films in this area could be both broadly entertaining while adhering to that element of social satire. "How I Won The War" is best known today as the only solo acting performance on film of John Lennon from The Beatles. Lennon's role is however relatively small and while not inconsequential doesn't play a role in the larger impact of the film itself beyond making it well known to music and culture fans. Anyone criticizing the film has to look at the film within the larger context of WHEN it was released, the type of films at the time, the type of movement it was part of, the role it played and its reception as well as within a contemporary context and how its meaning may have changed along with its audience and the larger social function of film as entertainment AND as commentary. Within that regard "How I Won The War" holds up remarkably well--it's satire is still pointed and much like "Catch-22" (although in the case of that film the critical reaction was tempered largely by the fact that it was an adaptation of a critically acclaimed work of fiction by Joseph Heller and was NOT largely judged on its own independently of the novel because almost all critics and many in the audience knew Heller's novel) the film has grow richer in some areas while in others the film demonstrates its age. ***

For example "Birth of A Nation" both reflects the era it was made it, its social cocerns and comments in its own "voice" about them but also stands apart. Those elements (the racist ones) haven't aged well but some of the dramatic elements still hold up quite well and the film as well to some degree. ***

"How I Won The War" Lester's satire which although it doesn't take place during the Vietnam War was squarely aimed at it as well as the NEED to go to war became hugely influential in that regard. There were other satires that were influenced by this film just as Lester's film was influenced by Stanley Kubrick's black satire "Dr. Strangelove". Although elements of the film have certainly dated what hasn't is the message of the film and Lester's use of more experimental techniques that were quite innovative at the time certainly place it within the context of the 1960's, it also allows the film to stand outside of most of the films from the same time period because of how Lester approached his subject matter. The satirical elements have largely held up well for the film but some of the broader and more topical elements of satire have begun to show wear and tear of time and changes in social conventions. In many respects the style of the film (which had a big influence on the Monty Python films but less on the TV show and other darker social comedies) likewise falls under both categories of successful and timeless and dated. ***

Lt. Ernest Goodbody (Michael Crawford) manages to get most of his men killed over the years through sheer inept leadership. Related by Goodbody after he has been captured by the Germans as an oral memoir detailing his "heroic" leadership, Goodbody comes across as a buffoon who rises to leadership due to everything BUT intelligence and ability as he effectively leads his men (John Lennon, Roy Kinnear among others) in circles. ---

Image & Sound:

The transfer looks quite nice and very much comparable with slightly better detail than the previous DVD release. Blacks are solid throughout and while the crispness of the image does falter on occasion on the whole the film looks quite nice. Personally supervised by director Richard Lester and the film's editor, "How I Won the War" looks quite nice with a solid and, for the most part, very clean presentation. Be aware however that this is a burn-on-demand DVD-R and while that may not impact the image quality, some folks have had problems with DVD-R burn-on-demand discs. ***

The original mono sound comes across with nice presence and the fidelity is good throughout with dialogue firmly up front in the mix.

Special Features:

The original release had the trailer only and that's all we get here, with the exception of the nice little photo booklet. With the 30 Anniversary of John Lennon's murder last year it wouldn't have hurt MGM to invest a bit more (particularly given how high the price are for their boutique titles like this) in extras. A commentary by director Richard Lester or a featurette on the film, Lennon's role and the larger social impact of satires like this would have been nice. I'm happy that MGM has chosen to reissue this but I take issue with them as I do with Warner and some other on-demand projects that they don't invest much time on cleaning these up or even provide vintage featurettes.

Final Words:

Although certainly elements of "How I Won the War" have become dated that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Films are very much about the era they were produced in NOT the era they are about and within that context the film still is remarkably amusing and powerful. Having said that there's also the context of time that has to be considered--how the film plays TODAY. Even though "War" hasn't aged as well as, say, "Dr. Strangelove", it still holds up remarkably well.


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