At the end of World War II, by the Rhine, Lieutenant Ernest Goodbody (Michael Crawford) stages an abortive attempt to cross the river with his men, but ends up captured by the Germans. After being kicked around by the Nazi soldiers, he strikes up a friendship with one of the German commanding officers (Karl Michael Vogler), who he begins to tell the tales of his combat experiences to. He had a more privileged background that many of the recruits, and unlike them felt he could be very useful in the war, but the swelling ranks of British army are unprepared for the conflict - not just in terms of equipment, but in attitude as well.
This subversive war satire (and war movie send-up) was scripted by Charles Wood from the novel by Patrick Ryan, and unsteadily set out to put forward the view that soldiers, not only of the Second World War, but of any war (this was released at the time of the Vietnam conflict), were taken advantage of by their country's leaders and their lives thrown away. It's probably best known today for being the only film that John Lennon starred in without the Beatles, but in truth, if you're expecting his second billing to indicate a co-starring role, then be prepared to see him rather lost, throwing away sardonic comments, in the ensemble supporting cast - it's the hard-working Crawford who appears in almost every scene.
Goodbody is put in charge of a regiment, the "Musketeers", and sent to North Africa. Instead of being given a combat mission, they are instructed to head behind enemy lines and find an oasis where they can build a cricket field - they bring along a cumbersome roller to assist. Goodbody's men are preoccupied with personal problems, all caused by the war: Clapper (Roy Kinnear) is worried about his wife sleeping around now that he is not there, as she keeps writing to him to tell him so, Juniper (Jack MacGowran) is being driven barmy so that he appears as a clown, complete with costume, and Drogue (James Cossins) is waiting for the point at which he dies, which he has prior knowledge of.
This is no conventional war movie, it's self-consciously wacky and determinedly disillusioned about heroics, two attitudes which make for a cluttered result. Director Richard Lester is not afraid to add slapstick - Crawford ends up stuck headfirst up to his middle in the sand - and Wood's lines include many wry observations and non sequiturs, which has the effect of seeming like many conversations on the same subject all mixed up together. Constantly threatening to collapse into confusion, the film isn't all that funny either, as its abrasiveness and awkwardness dulls the humour and dilutes the sympathy for the more hapless soldiers, who need all the sympathy they can get in their situation.
The higher echelons of the army are represented by Colonel Grapple (Michael Hordern), who sums them up by being aloof, uncaring of the danger his men are in, and possibly insane with power. Goodbody is making his way up the ranks, and his troops all secretly want to kill him, forcing themselves not to at times. When the soldiers finally succumb to the inevitable, i.e. getting killed, they return to be represented as ghostly, silent figures in different colours corresponding to battles - green, pink, orange, blue - but Goodbody, the man whose inept decisions has put them in that position, remains not only unharmed, but still in charge. How I Won The War believes that even in a just war, the soldiers are exploited and prey to the whims of their superiors, and if they don't end up dead, then they're certainly not enjoying many benefits, either, no matter that they win. A contentious opinion, and not one which is smoothly conveyed by this jumbled film because they don't offer a convincing alternative. Music by Ken Thorne.
Efforts like Royal Flash, Robin and Marian, gay bathhouse comedy The Ritz and Cuba made less impact, but in the eighties Lester was called in to salvage the Superman series after Richard Donner walked off Superman II; Lester also directed Superman III. Finders Keepers was a flop comedy, and Return of the Musketeers had a tragic development when one of his regular cast, Roy Kinnear, died while filming. Lester then decided to give up directing, with Paul McCartney concert Get Back his last film.