Sunday, 3 March 2013

All This and World War II (1976)



All This and World War 2 proves, as a famous man once said, that there is a fine line between clever and stupid. No matter how clever the idea of cutting newsreel and movie footage from the 30s and 40s with the music of the Beatles (not the originals, but covers by stars of the 70s such as The Bee Gees and Leo Sayer) may sound on paper, the end result is very, very stupid.

The main problem is that the choice of songs is rarely either appropriate or very imaginative for the footage, and by limiting herself to Beatles tracks, director Susan Winslow has to shoehorn something in, regardless of relevance. Good taste does not really come into it, which is why in the first two minutes, we see scenes of Hitler visiting his forces, and soldiers marching around doing soldier things, all set to "Magical Mystery Tour" (complete with a Nazi brass band "playing" along). While I am sure there was uncertainty and trepidation around the world as to how the war would turn out, are they seriously comparing the outbreak of war with a "Magical Mystery Tour"?

Even a relatively downbeat pop song such as “Help”, seems crass compared to what we are shown of the individual heroism of soldiers or the wider struggle of the UK's attempts to get the USA involved. Sometimes the juxtapositions are not inappropriate, or silly, but crashingly obvious, with Hitler gazing wistfully from atop his Bavarian mountain retreat, while “The Fool on the Hill” plays in the background, or “Getting Better” while things are, well, getting better for the Allies. Most of the time though the musical choices are just pointless and inexplicable, such as “Polythene Pam” playing behind scenes of people trying on Gas Masks, “Maxwell's Silver Hammer” for scenes of men signing up for the Draft, and, most bafflingly of all, the bombing of Pearl Harbour set to “I am The Walrus”.

The simple fact is that much of this footage does not need any musical accompaniment, being dramatic, chilling or moving enough on its own. It certainly does not need these versions of the songs, none of which improve on the originals, and many of which manage to suck any life and emotion out of the original and replace it with dullness or phoney overwrought schmaltz, which jars terribly against real images of heartbreak and sacrifice.

Rather than just stringing together footage at random, director Susan Winslow does try to create a narrative arc, stretching from Chamberlain and his talk of appeasement, right up to the birth of the atomic bomb. Unfortunately, World War 2 is just too complex a thing to boil down into 80 minutes, without skimming over or trivialising many of the aspects of it. A perfect example is the issue of race in the armed forces. We see footage of white troops training, followed shortly by footage of black troops training separately, implying that among the forces fighting a racist ideology there was an element of segregation and racism. However, later we see a montage of Allied troops (an African-American, an Irishman, a Sikh, a Pole, and a Frenchman), proudly announcing where they are from. So are they saying there was no racism? Alternatively, is it more complicated than that? This is a subject worthy of a documentary of its own, but here, it is shown and quickly discarded as the narrative marches remorselessly onwards to the next event, without giving any further explanation or context.

This leads me to wonder what the point of All This and World War II is. It is a documentary but it has no message or point of view, and a distinctive gimmick, but no substance. The skimming over or avoiding of themes and events means, unless anyone is unaware who won the war, it is useless as an educational tool. If the Beatles and World War 2 mix is meant as a joke, it is a five-minute joke stretched over 80. In addition, despite some occasional lapses in good taste, it stops short of being truly offensive, so does not even pass muster as a work of pure provocation.