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DVD Review: How I Won the War and More MGM Limited Edition Collection Titles

MGM’s Limited Edition Collection features burn-on-demand DVD-Rs created using the best possible materials. March releases from the label include the following:

How I Won the War (1967) directed by Richard Lester

Existing somewhere on the scale between noble failure and mere curiosity, Richard Lester’s How I Won the War is a relentlessly absurdist attack on the institution of war. It’s most known for starring John Lennon in his first solo, non-Beatles film role, and for that reason alone, many unsuspecting viewers have likely been bewildered by what they’ve seen.

There’s no question that How I Won the War is a bit of a slog to get through. Lester’s earlier films, including A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack, have an irrepressible energy, but How I Won the War often seems too concentrated on being as surreal as possible.

Michael Crawford stars as Lt. Goodbody, a hopelessly incompetent WWII commander, recounting what he believes are his great exploits campaigning in North Africa and Europe. His enlisted men, including those played by Lennon and Roy Kinnear, are constantly considering ways to get rid of him.

The film plays out in a series of loosely connected vignettes that are occasionally withering in their satire, but the film itself is so nonsensically structured, it can be difficult to stay engaged. Lester has remarked that he wanted the film to be a commentary on the illogical nature of war, and the film resoundingly reflects that, but it’s the kind of thing that’s appreciated more in concept than in execution. A film like The Monkees’ Head is a much more successful example of the kind of surrealist non-narrative playfulness that How I Won the War strives for.

The MGM Limited Edition burn-on-demand disc replaces a long out-of-print pressed MGM DVD, and includes the theatrical trailer and optional English subtitles. The print used has a fair amount of speckles and light damage and colors look a little washed-out, but it’s a decent transfer. A commemorative photo album is also included with the release, but was not sent with the review copy I received.

Not as a Stranger (1955) directed by Stanley Kramer

Stanley Kramer would go on to make a number of films that managed to be both heavy-handed and oversimplified, but his debut feature, little-seen since its release, is quite the subtle character study.

Robert Mitchum stars as Lucas Marsh, a medical student who can’t afford to pay tuition, partially thanks to his drunk deadbeat dad (Lon Chaney Jr.). He’s going to be thrown out of school unless he can come up with the money, so he marries a frugal and sensible nurse, Kristina Hedvigson (Olivia de Havilland). She loves him and has the money to pay his tuition; he has no such feelings. His wisecracking friend Alfred Boone (Frank Sinatra) doesn’t think it’s such a good idea.

After graduation and interning, Marsh ends up at a small-town medical practice under the tutelage of old pro Dave Runkleman (Charles Bickford), and his eye wanders toward the beautiful Harriet Lang (Gloria Grahame).

Mitchum, although perhaps not too credible as a student early on, is nonetheless superb as the casually amoral Marsh, a man willing to step on the backs of anyone needed to advance his personal standing. De Havilland also makes good as the longsuffering wife.

Kramer allows the film to proceed at a leisurely pace, giving us plenty of chances to see Marsh’s behavior play out, and he resists underlining the heavy emotions or betrayals that occur throughout the film. His scenes in the operating room have a particular fluid grace that makes for a distinctly different kind of medical drama than populates pop culture today.

The DVD case promises a widescreen transfer, but that’s not the case, as what we get is a full frame image like in the previous VHS and Region 2 DVD releases. It’s almost certainly a crop job rather than an open matte print, and it’s extremely disappointing the extra work wasn’t done this time around to give us the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The DVD is featureless.

The Captive City (1952) directed by Robert Wise

The film that Robert Wise directed right after his sci-fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Captive City bears a similar paranoia to later sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Its frame narrative to that film is quite similar, with a story of things being not as they seem told in flashback by newspaperman Jim Austin (John Forsythe).

About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.