Lesser-known Lennon film contains eerie premonition
The 1967 satirical movie, by the director of Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, is rife with absurdism and gags — but a line in the final battle scene is what’s most memorable
On Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon was gunned down by deranged fan Mark David Chapman. Lennon, like the Beatles, has been examined every which way, even idolized in a manner that can sand over his rougher edges.
Still, some of his output gets ignored, including much of his solo work; his by-manyaccounts unlistenable art records with Yoko Ono; the couple’s avant-garde films; and his books, packed silly with aggressive wordplay.
And then there’s his acting. We don’t mean A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (Both are classics, although there’s an argument to be made that Help! is even better. It’s goofier and its absurd sense of humour, while owing more to director Richard Lester and writer Charles Wood than the Beatles, anticipates the likes of Monty Python.) We mean the only film in which he didn’t play himself (or “himself”).
That would be How I Won the War, made in 1967. A dense, kaleidoscopic and bracing satire, it was once again made by the team of Lester and Wood. Lester was a poppy stylist who married fastpaced imagery — he was called “the grandfather of the music video,” which prompted him to half-jokingly ask for a blood test — to a bemused and skeptical world view. Wood was, like Lennon, an incorrigible wordsmith.
Despite dominating its advertisements, Lennon is only a supporting player in How I Won the War. The lead is played by Michael Crawford, the future Phantom of the Opera, who at that point was a go-to bumbling, stammering, pratfalling man-child.
The film was based on a satirical novel by Patrick Ryan, but Lester and Wood went further into absurdism. Here, Crawford’s obliviously proper lieutenant takes his troops, who all hate him, to North Africa on a mission to set up a cricket pitch.
The plot is beyond loose, there to buttress a frankly exhausting stream of gags and Brechtian devices. Actors, among them Lennon’s Gripweed, address the camera. The antics of the token clownish soldier (Jack MacGowran) — who, as it’s gradually revealed, is actually totally insane — sometimes get fitted with a laugh track, decades before Oliver Stone did the same thing in Natural Born Killers.