FANTASIA OBSCURA: Tracing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to John Lennon’s Turn as a Soldier

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, even when you realize that nothing is real, you still can’t accept that there’s nothing to get hung about…

How I Won the War (1967)

Distributed by: United Artists
Directed by: Richard Lester

This year, many have collectively recalled the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘s release, especially here at REBEAT.

Much has been made about one of the songs that didn’t make the cut for the album, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” This track, a collage made out of multiple arrangements done at Abbey Road, was composed by John Lennon in late 1966 while he was in the hills of Aleria in Spain. The song was a wistful look at his boyhood as he grasped at moments and totems that made up his early life, making an effort to reach out to what was around him from when he was growing up.

As to why he was Aleria in the first place…

Living is easy with eyes closed

Our film opens on the Rhine in 1945 just as the Allies are trying to capture an intact bridge over the river as part of Operation Plunder. One unit is under the command of Lieutenant Earnest Goodbody (Michael Crawford), who, as he leads the charge, finds himself literally up that infamous creek without a paddle as his unit frags him, abandoning him as he takes to the river. Right after their act of disobedience, his unit turns to the camera and demolishes the fourth wall like a Crusader tank rolling over the garden shed out back, even getting handed pints as they talk about what a twit he was.

This sets the tone for the entire film, as at different times, Goodbody and his men will turn their attention to us to let us know what they think, disengaging from everything around them. Which, in turn, suggests that we might be better off going elsewhere, too.

By the end of the credits, Goodbody has drifted downstream into the hands of the Germans. He gives his name, rank, and serial number, then follows it unprompted with his life story.

We get through flashbacks (which are also overburdened with asides from everyone) Goodbody’s officer training under Colonel Grapple (Michael Hordern) whose tutelage is detrimental to the already badly flawed Goodbody, making his the worst commander ever given a unit in the Royal Army.

Among his troops are Sargent Transom (Lee Montague), responsible for trying to keep his men focused; Private Clapper (Roy Kinnear), who’s worried about his wife’s infidelities back home; Private Drouge (James Coussins), who keeps spoiling the movie by continually telling us he’s going to die in North Africa; “Private” Juniper (Jack MacGowran), whose craziness and wearing of clown pants seems to get him promoted quickly to general; and Private Gripweed (Lennon), who gets along best with Goodbody for all the good it does him.

This gallant band is assembled to carry out a daring mission: Get behind Axis lines in North Africa and build a cricket pitch. The officers who are supposedly coming through Rommel’s lines are keen that it be waiting for them there when they arrive and place a lot of faith in Goodbody’s unit.

This at least is what he tells his German captor, Odlebog (Karl Michael Volger), a man with fewer illusions than his captive and a lot less scruples. During the discussions between them, the two men seem to have an understanding of each other, and how this whole horrible business need not get in the way of two chaps needing to work it all out.

Despite all the killings of characters in the film and whatnot…

Misunderstanding all you see…

Much like war itself, the film is a bit of an ugly mess. This is certainly Lester’s intent, to de-glamorize conflict, an answer to films like The Bridge Over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. But in the process the end result goes beyond preachy to shrill, wasting a chance to make a statement through the distractions that burden it.

Not that they weren’t clever distractions. By having the characters give their thoughts to us directly, we get a good representation of Goodbody in film as an unreliable narrator, which can be difficult to present in a visual medium. But by overusing them, we get bombarded with asides in Charles Wood’s screenplay (based on a novel by Patrick Ryan, no relation) that do to the story what Goodbody’s men did to his dingy in the opening of the film.

As for the men, there is one clever bit worth note: As a character dies, they are replaced in the unit by a “plastic soldier,” a member of the service painted and dressed head to toe in one plastic color such as green or off-pink. It’s an interesting trick, replacing living characters with abstract representations (one of whom was supposedly played by Neil Aspinall), but it gets overwhelmed by the rest of the wild production.

It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out…

Speaking of involvement in the project, it’s worth noting Lester’s cast and crew. In addition to his usual regulars like Crawford and Kinnear, he also brought in Dandy Nichols and Gretchen Franklin from Help! and John Junkin from A Hard Day’s Night, along with John and scriptwriter Wood, both of whom were on Help! as well.

Whether he’d intended this to be a spiritual follow-up to the earlier Beatles films or if he just made choices that seemed like a good idea at the time, whatever he’d hoped to accomplish was pretty well done in when he cast John as Gripweed.

As an actor, John does well enough with the material, but even if he could out out-act the entire cast, he’d still have been a distraction; John Lennon, a member of the Beatles during the height of their popularity, was not going to simply disappear into the character and not take everyone’s eyes off the rest of the production, which weighed against the audience ever appreciating this film on its own (limited) merits.

It’s John’s presence, the notoriety of having him on set that gives the film its distinction. It brought the film to everyone’s attention before its release, even putting his face on the first ever cover of Rolling Stone, and it drove people to see a movie that they expected would be a new Beatles comedy. When they got what they did, the film fell off the radar for most people; it had at best a spotty distribution and a reputation that made it hard for people to find for many years.

It doesn’t matter much to me…

Not that John minded much; he was on record at the time saying that he didn’t much care for the work of an actor, sticking to music as his first choice.

While this can be challenged when one recalls that John’s “granny glasses” that Gripweed wore for the film became part of his personal style after the film for most of his life, there’s not much else to support his claim. There’s the tale that during filming he was approached by an English teacher in Spain, Juan Carron Ganan, who asked John to help him get right lyrics to his songs in order to better teach his students, which John was enthusiastic to help with. Stories like this gives clues as to whether John’s heart was ever really in filming the production (in addition to being the basis for the 2013 film Living is Easy with Eyes Closed).

And of course, his recollections of the entire experience are given in one verse on a song that did make Sgt. Pepper, “A Day in the Life”:

I saw a film today, oh boy,
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book…

NEXT TIME: In honor of our revisiting Los Angeles, we don our trench coats and slap on our side arms to go again to the dark city, the one in another “galaxy” where you can’t trust what they say, in any language…

About James Ryan 118 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…