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Oh! What A Lovely War Games
1969: Time Lords and war stories
An occasional series looking at Doctor Who, a peculiarly British kind of TV show, and its cultural contexts.1
The greatest decade in the history of the world is coming to an end2 and all anyone can think about is the First World War. On TV, Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who finds himself down in the trenches in The War Games, while up on the big screen, Richard Attenborough gives us an unlikely musical version in Oh! What A Lovely War. Even in films as diverse as the light-hearted Edwardian romp The Assassination Bureau and the death of the old West (and the old Western) The Wild Bunch, the Great War looms over proceedings.
The First World War has a peculiar resonance in 1969: for the Vietnam protesters, the futility of conflict; for the hipsters and drug takers, the end of Edwardian decadent elegance; for everyone who hoped that change was a’coming, the death of a dream of a better world.
The War Games
10 episodes, black and white, April to June 1969
Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, with companions: Jamie, a Jacobite Highlander from 1764; Zoe, an astrophysicist from the 21st century
The Doctor and his companions arrive on the Western Front during World War I. Or do they? In fact aliens are snatching soldiers from Earth (a notably violent civilisation, apparently) to train the most lethal army in the galaxy, under the aegis of the magnificently moustachioed War Chief.
Oh! What a Lovely War
144 mins, colour. Directed by dear, dear Dickie
All the stars of British stage and screen; a handful of Redgraves, a brace of Mills and Professor McGonagall in a basque
An incredibly ’60s confection: a stagey film of a conceptual play, telling the story of one family’s experience of the First World War through the metaphor of a day out on Brighton Pier singing period popular songs. It's peculiarly affected, but also, in many parts, peculiarly affecting.
In The War Games The Doctor lands in the middle of World War I, only to discover that it is, in fact, only one of a series of small local wars being run by a shadowy organisation to further its own, larger ends. It could be the CIA in Vietnam, rather than an alien War Chief snatching human soldiers to run a mock First World War on a distant planet.
And there are further parallels with Vietnam - the public perception of futility, for a start. As Oh! What a Lovely War demonstrates; the settled narrative for 1914-1918 is that the gallant youthful flower of the Empire was sent to die in Flanders field by incompetent and foolish generals, for worthless and questionable ends. They were ‘lions led by donkeys’, a phrase that was already so generic in 1961 that Alan Clark was able to adapt it for the title of his book about the war. (Being Alan Clark, he also claimed to have invented it, which, being Alan Clark, he hadn’t.)3
The First World War was, as the name suggests, not the only one available for The War Games. It had a sequel. 1969 also saw the release of The Battle of Britain, a solemn and very nearly interminable account of the terrifying and furious summer of 1940, when the RAF (and, in the nick of time, some day-saving Poles and Czechs4) fought off the Luftwaffe and put a decisive end to any plans Hitler may have had to invade Britain.
In The Battle of Britain the exhausted RAF pilots and Laurence Olivier’s dowdy Air Chief Marshal Dowding are unquestionably in it together. It buys deeply into the officially sanctioned narrative of the Second World War: an honourable conflict built on national solidarity, the whole country in a titanic struggle for survival and humanitarian values.
The Battle of Britain is stultifying partly because it didn’t suit the political and cultural moment of its release. In the era of Vietnam, of bitter intergenerational conflict and distrust of authority, the First World War was more resonant. War was a waste of life; soldiers are helpless pawns who try to do the right thing but are let down by the politicians and brass hats.5
The First World War is the perfect metaphor for the Peace Generation and it is a perfect setting for Doctor Who, too: a persistent pacifist who is always fighting warmongers, frequently using their own tactics against them.
He is up against The War Chief, who is leading a group of aliens in recreating a whole range of wars from humanity’s history in an effort to develop the perfect soldiers with whom to conquer the galaxy. The Doctor and the War Chief consistently beat each other to stalemates6, which is hardly surprising as they are both of the same species. They are - and this is the first time in Doctor Who history that we hear this term - Time Lords. Renegade Time Lords, in both cases. The only way the Doctor can prevail is by giving himself up and calling in the rest of the Time Lords to sort everything out, a bit like the Americans arriving on the Western Front in 1917.
This is something of a Pyrrhic victory for The Doctor, though. The Time Lords, sick of his gallivanting about in time and space, exile him to one period and one place: Earth in the 1970s. And then they change him into Jon Pertwee, just for the hell of it. Appropriately for 1969, this is the end of an era for the Doctor, the end of interstellar gadding about, the end of Patrick Troughton. (It’s also the last Doctor Who story in black and white.)
Likewise the First World War has long been regarded by historians as the end of ‘the long nineteenth century’. Oh! What a Lovely War opens with a family day out on Brighton beach that is interrupted by a military band. It closes with a family day out on the South Downs, dotted out to the horizon with the white crosses of the unnumbered dead. Britain will never be the same again, every village in the country haunted forever by monuments to these lost young men.7
The ’60s generation knew that the dreamy, confident, decadent, Imperial world had gone for ever, but they yearned for some of its innocence, and some of its clothes too. The 1908-set comedy thriller The Assassination Bureau (1969)8 plays the run-up to the First World War as a light-hearted caper through a less weary world. It’s also very à la mode for 1969, featuring two preposterously beautiful young people - Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg - in preposterously beautiful Edwardian outfits.
The fin-de-siècle style was hip; in 1969, the King’s Road boutique Granny Takes a Trip opened shops in the States, establishing overseas colonies with its psychedelic Imperial stylings. You can see it everywhere, from Terry Gilliam’s Edwardian cut-ups for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to Steed’s old-world savoir faire in The Avengers.
Oh! What A Lovely War merges arch ’60s staging with Edwardian settings in a way that makes perfect sense in a decadent, drug-infused way.9 The seaside setting, the toys and funfair quality all catch a sense of lost innocence, a childhood grown out of, a fair promise turned foul, that fits both the end of the century and the end of the ’60s.10
Even Bond is at it in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)11, dressing in the kind of traditional and specifically British style that might better suit the Doctor. Bond (George Lazenby in this incarnation) infiltrates Blofeld’s base in full kilt and sporran (and nothing underneath but his *ahem* dirk), posing as a representative from the College of Arms, offering to authenticate Blofeld’s claims to aristocracy. The nostalgia for the ephemera of Empire is strong.
But built into this nostalgia for the long Edwardian summer is a refusal to address the realities of Imperial Britain and Europe. For all their radicalism, the makers of Oh! What a Lovely War burnished the legend of plucky little Belgium standing up to the ravaging Hun; they made no reference to the Belgium that had terrorised and slaughtered in the Congo a couple of short decades before the First World War began.12 At the turn of the century the machine guns of the British Army mowed down thousands of young men in the Anglo-Sudan War, but grief and elegiac notes are reserved for white European boys. There’s no interrogation of the Imperial narrative here. Indeed, the only colonial troops who appear in Oh! What a Lovely War are some hearty (and very white) Australians.
It was no doubt comfortable to imagine that that Imperial might had been largely deployed to benevolent ends. As the sixties faded to blood red and the sun set on the British Empire we were left with the beguiling dream of that last glorious summer before the war, exiled as we were, like the Doctor, to this rainy little island in the dismal late twentieth century.
You can see The War Games on BritBox: https://www.britbox.co.uk/watch/The_War_Games_(Part_1)_49562
Oh! What a Lovely War is on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Lovely-War-Laurence-Olivier/dp/B07KFSY5QF/
As is The Assassination Bureau:
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:
And, through the MGM channel, The Battle of Britain:
Next week: We round up The Usual Suspects for questioning
We’re doing this by watching the highest IMDb rated story for each Doctor.
And as Presuming Ed has consistently pointed out, ‘we have failed to paint it black. They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man.’ (You’d better believe there’s a Withnail piece coming.)
A man who inherited his wit, as well as his furniture.
The credits also list an ‘Israeli’, even though Israel didn’t exist in 1940 and the pilot in question was actually born in Palestine.
My Lai rather upended the narrative of the well-meaning US soldier in Vietnam, but the truth about that incident only emerged later.
Across ten episodes! We were promised it would all be over by Christmas, but no, here we are in the trenches, enduring yet another episode of The War Games.
Nihilistic gorefest and revisionist Western The Wild Bunch, also 1969, has this elegiac note too. The eponymous ageing gunfighters see an automobile for the first time, and are awed by it. Pike, the leader of the Bunch, says: “We've got to start thinkin' beyond our guns. those days are closin' fast.” Indeed, their days end with a machine gun massacre, like something from the trench warfare of the Western Front.
Based on a Jack London story, it’s a rather enjoyable piece of steampunk whimsy in which an international league of assassins controls Europe with strategic bomb throwing.
In one delirious sequence a puppet show on the pier becomes a carousel on the South Downs on which the French cavalry ride wooden horses to a rendition of ‘Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser’, only to end in a massacre, becoming a puppet show again.
The mod style is reserved for villains in 1969: the literally myopic aliens in The War Games have groovy sunglasses, Nehru jackets and an Op Art base, like a whole bevy of Blofelds, who was, of course, the antagonist of the 1969 Bond outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Also featuring Telly Savalas and Diana Rigg, who had only just finished facing off in The Assassination Bureau and who were, apparently, the only actors available in Britain in 1969. I guess everyone else was busy in Oh! What A Lovely War.
You could think of The War Games as a sort of Gallifreyan Heart of Darkness, or at least Apocalypse Now, to complete the Vietnam relationship - the Doctor being sent into a strange country to find one of his own number gone rogue.
Never get out of the TARDIS.