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

Metro Canada (Ottawa) - - Scene - MATT PRIGGE Metro World News in New York City

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.

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