‘The Great War’ or — Casual Annihilation?
Giovanni (Vittorio Gassman) is called up to fight for Italy. Giovanni doesn’t want to fight. Indeed, we’re not sure if Giovanni wants to do anything apart from laze about and occasionally quote Bakunin, and even this feels less driven by political idealism than as a justification to do as little as possible.
Oreste (Alberto Sordi) “works” at the recruitment office yet seems only concerned about fleecing the naive, potential soldiers out of 30 lira in a scam he’s got going to help them get out of active service. Oreste, like Giovanni, doesn’t want to fight and certainly doesn’t want to end up at the front lines of a war.
Both Giovanni and Oreste end up at the front lines of the war.
From here on we follow these two slackers (or maybe they’re the only two sane people about?) as they put more effort into wriggling out of combat duty than they would’ve spent if they’d actually went out and fought. It’s exhausting avoiding a war, after all. Besides, they’re utterly incompetent (a highly valuable skill to have at times like these) so who the hell is going to give them a job to do anyway? This, however, doesn’t stop them from being given jobs to do anyway. It’s almost as though this war was being run by idiots!
With its First World War setting and highly irreverent sense of humour Mario Monicelli’s ‘The Great War’ (1959) plays out like a cross between ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) or Raymond Bernard’s ‘Wooden Crosses’ (1932) and ‘M*A*S*H’ (1970) or ‘Catch-22’ (1972). Yet how can you wring comedy out of such a terrible situation and make it work? The good news is that, for me, Monicelli’s movie works better, by far, than almost any other anti-war comedy before or since and this could be down to the way Monicelli expertly integrates the humour and tragedy to the point where it becomes hard to separate one from the other. Plus the fact that, technically, this movie is on a whole other level.
Possibly the best example of Monicelli’s ability to deftly handle such tonal extremes is the jaw-droppingly spectacular moment roughly half-way through when the order is given for the men to go over the top, storm the enemy trenches and take control of a bridge. It’s truly epic in scale as the camera follows hundreds of soldiers running towards almost certain death across a scarred battlefield erupting in lethal explosions.
And yet the pay-off to all this slaughter? A joke! Giovanni and Oreste are upon top of a hill arsing about and screwing things up whilst, down below them, mass slaughter is taking place on a terrible scale! It’s like watching the Normandy beach landing in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) but if Spielberg decided to end the entire sequence with a prat-fall. Are we allowed to be laughing at this? The bigger problem is it’s a VERY funny joke which simply raised my guilt levels as I was laughing away whilst men were being mown down before my eyes (it also might be the most expensive gag put to film I’ve ever seen). There’s bound to be a price paid for this lack of respect.
There’s another moment when a young boy is needless killed as he desperately attempts to deliver a message to his captain and when we discover what the message is it’s up to you whether you want to laugh or cry, and with the insanity going on all around them then either response is legitimate. The secret might be that the comedy here is completely believable, and that might also be the most horrifying aspect about all this.
Monicelli himself said that these Italians who fought in WWI were “poor devils, badly dressed and undernourished, ignorant and illiterate who were sent to do something that had nothing in common with their lives” and Giovanni and Oreste response to the war is to view it almost as an irritating inconvenience that occasionally sucks them up into its madness.
This notion of war as being something that intrudes unexpectedly means ‘The Great War’ has strong parallels with the films of Sergio Leone, specifically ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966) where Tuco and Blondie keep getting tripped-up by or embroiled in military events beyond their control. Indeed, what with the David Lean-esque spectacle, sweeping camera moves, dark humour and intrusion of conflict than I wouldn’t be surprised if Monicelli’s film was as big an influence on Leone as those of the American West. The big difference between the two directors, though, is that Monicelli’s film contains genuine weight and means something.
It’s only towards the end that we are finally introduced to the Austrians they’re fighting and it’s a jarring and unexpected experience, the initial jolt coming courtesy of a striking, elaborate and brilliant camera move than follows an Austrian officer preening himself in his quarters. He’s so full of insouciance it’s almost as though he’s as flippant about the war as our two “heroes”. Yet this is where Giovanni and Oreste need to be careful because if death can come almost at random and for no reason whatsoever then signs of casual flippancy should be treated with the utmost caution.
The end, which I won’t reveal, is a sudden kick to the stomach that comes almost out of nowhere. But it feels real, true and in total keeping with everything we’ve seen. The film couldn’t have ended any other way and even though the message is clear there’s also a sense of ambiguity, a question of what constitutes bravery and cowardice and how the line between the two might not be so strongly defined.
‘The Great War’ is a startling achievement. Visually it’s as impressive and overwhelming as any other war film you might care to mention, the biting humour is as cutting as the best anti-war satires ever made and it might even be more daring and fearless than any other war comedy I’ve ever seen to the point I lost count at how many times my mouth flopped open at just how far Monicelli and his scriptwriters were prepared to go.
This isn’t just a great anti-war movie but is one of the finest, funniest and moving films ever made.