It’s always interesting to see a film set in the past but also produced in a different time as it tells you about both epochs. With this in mind I revisited this week Oh What a Lovely War! (1969) and The Day of the Jackal (1973).
Although no expert like Henry Elkins I am confident in saying that Oh What a Lovely War! made a significant contribution to the revisionist movement that the First World War was more than doing your bit for king and country but the wholesale and unnecessary destruction of a generation.
The film, directed by Richard Attenborough, cleverly interpreted the music hall theme of Joan Littlewood’s musical by being filmed on Brighton Pier, the recruiting post being for example the admission booth.
It then switches to the grim death of the trenches. It had a superb cast including wonderful cameo roles by Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, John Mills, Maggie Smith, John Clements, Kenneth More, Jean Pierre Cassel, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York and Juliet Mills. The Top Brass were particularly well depicted, reflecting the disdain of Sir John French (Laurence Olivier) for Field Marshal Haig (John Mills) for being “trade” as he came from the whisky family.
Yet for all the fine acting and direction, it is necessarily a film which requires any number of takes lacking the impact of live drama and the brilliant stage performances of Victor Spinetti and Avis Bunnage.
With a first rate book by Frederick Forsyth, a director of the standing of Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity, A Man For All Seasons) and whole raft of highly capable English actors like Alan Badel, Maurice Denham, Derek Jacobi, Ronald Pickup, Donald Sinden, Cyril Cusack, Eric Porter and Anton Rogers you have the recipe for a successful movie.
The film also was arguably the best performance of Edward Fox as the jaunty, dapper but cold eyed killer.
The film has a superb tempo with the build up and planning of the assassination and the man hunt for the Jackal. As with the book, routine detective work – like trawling the passport application office for a fake passport based on a person who has already died – is made absorbing.
The film has that alchemy of drawing you in as soon as you watch. I had an appointment to go to but seriously thought of cancelling it and rather wished I had. One aspect of the film that dates is the sex scenes. Both in the book and in the film these were rather contrived. You see a naked OAS Matahari-style agent leaving her lover’s (a French official in high office) bed and the jackal seducing a woman in a hotel. I felt that these scenes were inserted as you needed a sex scene in the seventies.
Aside from this I was engaged from first to last even though I knew the ending and some of the scenes came back to me.