Cult Movie: Neither Lennon nor Lester can claim victory in How I Won The War

John Lennon, Private Gripweed in Richard Lester's How I Won The War (1967)
Ralph McLean

RICHARD Lester worked with some impressive actors in his time. John Lennon was not one of them. Yet it is for his films with that quarter of the Fab Four that the American director is forever destined to be remembered. That's just the way popular culture works, isn't it?

Lester may have helmed films with stars like Sean Connery, Peter Sellers and Audrey Hepburn but it's the Beatles connection that people always want to bring up when his name is mentioned.

Watching Lennon during his brief dalliance with the big screen can be a pretty grim experience, however. Brilliant as the bold Beatle was musically, there are few that would suggest he was a budding thespian of any note. Lester probably realised that and simply made the best of what he had in front of him. The first two films the director and star made together speak for themselves.

In Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) Lennon essentially plays himself in the director's wildly exciting paean to Beatlemania. Racing around from taxi to train station and TV studio while strumming his Rickenbacker didn't stretch his acting muscles too much, I imagine.

In Help! (1965) he staggers around the exotic surroundings of that first film's bloated follow-up like some kind of stoned superman, looking bewildered and out of his head most of the time. By the time Lester and Lennon made it a trio of collaborations in How I Won The War in 1967 the wheels had begun to seriously wobble.

A fairly sloppy satire on the war film as a genre, it's a slice of 60s folly that hasn't stood the test of time too well. A tale of a military troop of incompetents who try to set up a cricket pitch behind enemy lines during the Second World War, it's certainly not Lester's finest hour and a half. It is peppered with some fine British character actors of the calibre of Roy Kinnear and Beatles fave Victor Spinetti but even they can't save it really.

Of course it's not actually a starring vehicle for Lennon at all – his Private Gripweed character is a secondary character, at best, to Michael Crawford's leading man, the inept and very Frank Spencer-like Lieutenant Earnest Goodbody – but that doesn't stop the BFI from slapping Lennon's granny-glasses-wearing bake all over the front cover of their brand new Blu-ray edition does it? I mean this is a Beatle we're talking about, right?

Lennon's limited screen time is mostly spent looking slightly uncomfortable and trying to deliver his minimal lines without openly blushing with embarrassment. Even without his clunky performance this would struggle to convince with its very 1967 mix of slapstick, fourth-wall-breaking pieces to camera and heavy-handed satirical swipes at military life.

The story goes that Lennon penned Strawberry Fields Forever while hanging around between takes in the desert and Michael Crawford once told me he was the first person that the Beatle ever played the song to – so at least something good came out of a decidedly downbeat production.

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