How I Won the War

The following article appeared in the November 9, 1967 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine.

John Lennon, in How I Won the War, which has its American premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival this week, plays the role of Private Gripweed. Gripweed is a mincing little fascist in a British platoon during World War II. Michael Crawford, as Lieuteant Goodbody, is the star of the film and Lennon is co-equal with about five others on a second level of importance. However you are aware of him as John Lennon from the moment he first appears in the background.
The story is about how Goodbody won the war. It begins in training at a Sandhurst-like academy in Britain where a wierd platoon of citizens are learning how to be soldiers. From there they follow a bizarre route through the desert of North Africa (when you hear the theme from Lawrence of Arabia.) The film ends up at a post-war London re-union with the two remaining members of the platoon.
John Lennon is not at teh reunion. He ended up somewhere in Normandy with a bloody hole in his stomache. "I always knew I was going to die," he says.
The film is more like a puppet play than a war movie. It is filled with flashbacks, flash-forwards, flashes in general and a platoon of soldiers, none of whome have the vaguest idea what any of the others are doing. For instance, John Lennon could care less; all he does is go around picking up Nazi medals in the sand and pins them on his fellow soldiers. (At one point he sets off a flare which gives his platoon's position and at another time he empties the platoon's water supply. Really, though, they're patriotic gestures.)
Each member of the platoon operates on an a priori set of values different from any of the others'. The movie takes place on all those dozen levels. One by one they began to die. After dying, each character reappears dressed in a World War I outfit and painted with some shade of pastel. They become angels. The mission of the platoon is to lay out a cricket pitch behind enemy lines.
The primary mood of the film is morbid. There's a lot of bleeding and amputating and one person gets run over by a tank. It's all pointless because that's the point of the film. As a director, Lester hasn't done anything very new: the use of colors, the editing, the directing, the writing has all been seen in his previous films or the films of others.
He has, however, made a film which the British censorship board won't allow to be seen by people under sixteen.
Sometimes the movie gets a little exhausting. But it's definitely something to see: John Lennon is a good actor and the very last scene is, by itself, more frightening than all the brutality in the rest of the movie. Michael Crawford's face ages thirty years in two seconds.



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