In 1976, 20th Century Fox unleashed something called “All This and World War II” on the moviegoing public. Even by the standards of the studio which dropped such oddities as “Myra Breckinridge,” “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” this flick was more than peculiar.
“All This and World War II” combines footage of the Second World War, both documentary newsreel film from the battlefront and glossy Hollywood war movies produced on the Fox backlot, and created a truncated version of the conflict scored to music. One might logically think the music would have been reflective of that era, either in the Big Band sounds of Glenn Miller and Harry James or the sophisticated jazz of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Actually, the film presents World War II to the music of the Beatles. But not the original Beatles recordings. Instead, a new selection of covers featuring the recording stars of the mid-70s (and a few jokers in the pack).
The initial reaction to this audacious experiment was total catastrophe. Critics savaged the movie with gusto while audiences (except for rabid Beatles fans) stayed away. Fox promptly yanked the film from release and hoped the production would be forgotten.
Yet over time, people began to wonder what became of the film. Rumors began to circulate that Fox destroyed all of the prints to “All This and World War II,” but that was rubbish. The film actually turned up in Cannes in 1977 as an out-of-competition feature and even played on American cable TV in the late 1970s. Over the years, one-shot television broadcasts occurred around the world and the film even played on the big screen last year at a festival in New Zealand (albeit in a 16mm print). But for video hounds, “All This and World War II” was nowhere to be found. Even the most rambunctious bootleg collectors were unable to locate a copy of this rare title, and many bootleg wish lists have “All This and World War II” atop the most wanted hunt.
Well, you can take the film off the wish list. After five years of searching, I located a copy of “All This and World War II.” For obvious reasons, I will not reveal the source of this copy (a private collector located outside of the United States). What I can say is that the flick was definitely worth searching for.
“All This and World War II” is, hands down, the most brilliantly reckless movie I’ve ever seen. This film takes the worst idea imaginable and runs with it to great speed and greater lengths, resulting in a work that encompasses both the sublime and the ridiculous. It is both tasteless and sassy, absurd and avant garde, an accomplishment that trivializes the war and a monument to the stupidity inherent to all wars. Viewed today as the Iraqi conflict roars terribly out of control, “All This and World War II” is a painful reminder that future generations never learn the mistakes of those who suffered before them.
Starting with the insane imagery of German cavalry galloping into 1939 Poland while Ambrosia bellows “Roll up for the mystery tour,” the film speeds furiously into a weird mix of history and Beatlemania. At first there is acidic wit on display in the mix-and-match of image and tune: Peter Gabriel’s warbling of “Strawberry Fields Forever” sings how “living is easy with eyes closed” while Neville Chamberlain holds aloft his doomed peace treaty with Germany. Hitler’s planning for war at his mountaintop retreat in Berchtesgaden becomes the “Fool on the Hill” as Helen Reddy sings how “the man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still.”
Just stop for a minute and consider that: Helen Reddy singing “Fool on the Hill” to a montage of newsreel clips of Hitler. You do realize, of course, that motion pictures are created by committee and dozens of people somehow gave that idea a perpetual green light which allowed it to zoom from concept to projector. Chew on that thought.
Suddenly, things get out of hand. Roy Wood sings of “Polythene Pam” while wartime Brits cavort in dancehalls wearing helmets and gas masks. Leo Sayer (yes, Leo Sayer) pours out a Johnny Ray-worthy rendition of “The Long and Winding Road” while Nazi forces push west from Germany through the Lowlands and to the port at Dunkirk. When the Nazi bombing of London reduces wide stretches of the city to fire and rubble, the Bee Gees chime in with “Golden Slumbers.”
Adding further confusion to the proceedings is the inclusion of footage from 20th Century Fox war movies. Richard Burton and James Mason enjoy a testy tete-a-tete from “The Desert Fox” which, in turn, sets up a sequence on the battle at Tobruk which is scored by the Brothers Johnson singing “Help!” Throughout the film, scenes from “The Longest Day,” “Patton,” “A Bell for Adano,” the Laurel and Hardy comedy “Great Guns” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” are dropped in at random. There’s even a scene from “Casablanca,” which may not have been authorized (there is no acknowledgment to Warner Brothers for that clip in the closing credits).
Ah, but what about the war in the Pacific? Tina Turner fills in that void with a tribute to Japan’s militaristic culture in the “Come Together” number. Showing close-ups of Hirohito and Japanese soldiers while Tina Turner belts out “Here comes old flat top” with his “choo choo eyeballs” is cutting things close to the racist mark. The Japanese departure for Pearl Harbor has the Bee Gees crooning “Here Comes the Sun King,” which is not as witty as it may seem. In fact, it is in damn poor taste, given the lyrics and their place against the devastation brought to Pearl Harbor. The attack itself (lifted from “Tora! Tora! Tora!”) is scored with Leo Sayer (again?) bellowing “I am the Walrus.” Don’t ask and I won’t tell.
Of course, America goes to war and the mass enlistment is honored with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The connection between a song about a homicidal nut and Americans defending their country is not easy to explain, nor can one question the decision to bring in 1950s singer Frankie Laine to perform the ditty.
As you may imagine, “All This and World War II” is thoroughly bizarre. Sometimes it works with extraordinary surrealism, such as the color footage of the Battle of Midway pegged to Elton John’s rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (the only hit single to emerge from the score). It shouldn’t work, but it is a compelling combination which oddly goes together nicely. Also on target: Mussolini’s downfall framed with “Nowhere Man” via Jeff Lynne and the German retreat with Rod Stewart doing “Get Back” while Nazi newsreel footage is run in reverse, showing Hitler and his henchmen marching backwards.
But when Stalin sends his Red Army off to the Brothers Johnson singing “Hey Jude” or the D-Day invasion plays alongside Frankie Valli’s take on “A Day in the Life,” it is shocking that no one at Fox ever raised an alarm to halt this nonsense from getting into approved prints. These sequences in “All This and World War II” can force one’s jaw to drop in horror. It is one thing to riff on the war, as Mel Brooks did with his “Springtime for Hitler” number in “The Producers.” But to trivialize the heroism and suffering of millions of people as a vehicle for weird covers of Beatles tunes is beyond my comprehension.
New Zealand film critic Shane Burridge pointed out how the film made the war into a vaguely antiseptic affair. There is plenty of damage to buildings and airplanes, but almost no human carnage is depicted. Captured prisoners are shown, but the POW camps are absent. The atrocities of the Holocaust are not here, nor is the devastation brought to the Chinese by the Japanese invaders. The closest civil liberty violation shown here is the forced internment of Japanese Americans, which is depicted with Leo Sayer (once more?) bleating out “Let it Be.”
There is plenty of time alloted for Hollywood news â€“ Clark Gable and James Stewart happily enlist for the newsreel cameras while Bob Hope cracks good natured jokes about Churchill to appreciative military audiences. For no clear reason, a lot of time is spent with a PR stunt featuring Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy being made an honorary soldier (complete with miniature uniform). You know something is odd when more time in a World War II movie is devoted to Charlie McCarthy than Douglas MacArthur.
But even with its astonishing lapses in taste, tact and brainpower, “All This and World War II” is an overpowering work. It is obvious that both the wartime experience and the Beatles music are being abused and exploited, but the experiment is so strange that it is difficult to hate the film even when it lapses deep into poor judgment. This production is baffling but never boring, silly but never stupid. Its manipulation of music and footage is a shock in many ways, but the strongest shock is the notion it was made with the blessing of a major Hollywood studio â€“ who then spent nearly three decades trying to hide the film. Susan Winslow was the director of “All This and World War II.” The Internet Movie Database does not credit her with directing any more films, which is a major shame if she was kept from helming additional projects.
Even if Fox wanted to re-release this film, clearing the music and performance rights for DVD would cost the studio a small fortune. This is probably why the two-record soundtrack has never been on CD, although the original LP is widely available over eBay. Maybe in time Fox will find a way to bring this weird work back to full release. Until such time, look very closely into The Bootleg Files and you may be able to find Hitler and Helen Reddy together once more!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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