Only in the 70s: All This and World War II (1976)
ONLY in the 70s is a feature where we take a look at films that could not have existed in any other decade, as true products of their time. This time, Hollywood hubris comes for The Beatles. A quick note: The film is difficult to find nowadays; the copy I watched was a horrifically low-quality (but very much appreciated) rip on YouTube, at least at the time of writing. Therefore, in lieu of the usual practice of including screenshots from the film, all screenshots in this article will be of the Beatles pulling stupid faces. Despite the mostly meh quality of these, trust me when I say it is an improvement.
So, The Beatles. You’ve heard of them. Your dad’s dressed up as John Lennon for New Year (twice), and your mum likes ‘Revolution 9’. Pretty big deal. Most successful musical act in the history of the medium. The point I’m making is that I don’t need to tell you about the fucking Beatles and why they’re important. Their influence is so apparent that no amount of meaningless factoids about their toilet habits in whatever new tell-all book can ever hope to diminish their singular appeal. They’re a big fucking deal. You know it, I know it, your too-religious nan hates it; it’s all there, and it’s obvious to literally everyone.
But what happened when The Beatles ended? After dominating the zeitgeist of the Sixties, the Fab Four descended into rancour and functionally collapsed by the end of the decade. Other acts would come to fill the void – we’ve talked about at least one of them before – but none could ever hope to match the sheer breadth of their importance. As is the case when titans fall, however, there will always be vultures to pick at the remains. The most notable example comes from Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – an astonishing misunderstanding of the Beatles’ music that reduced their discography to a kitsch-ridden carnival of shite – but there is another, much stranger example of the band’s afterlife in the decade they abandoned.
All This and World War II isn’t the malignant transgression that Sgt. Pepper was; if anything, it’s that film’s opposite. Born from a literal dream of executive producer Russ Regan’s, the film combines archival newsreels, golden era Hollywood film footage and – get this – the music of The Beatles, all in order to tell the story of World War II in roughly chronological order. You’d think that kind of premise would be exclusive to experimental students copping a few tricks from Eisenstein, but All This… was distributed by 20th Century Fox on a nationwide scale, with an all-star crew of contemporary artists covering Lennon-McCartney compositions for 83 minutes of pure, eerie surrealism. (The original tracks weren’t used because the studio thought a soundtrack album would make a good buck. More on that later.)
The film had clout, despite its baffling foundation. Featuring covers from the likes of Elton John, The Bee Gees, Peter Gabriel and Jeff Lynne, and (initially) helmed by Tony Palmer, who would go on to produce the acclaimed All You Need is Love series, All This… was nonetheless beset by production issues. Joe Adamson, one of the lead researchers, has noted how the original cut made by himself and Palmer differed greatly from the final cut, and almost featured input from Bill Murray and Christopher Guest. There were (false) rumours that Terry Gilliam had been asked to animate certain segments, and even John Lennon himself had discussed many of the film’s sequences with Palmer, presumably before Palmer was replaced in the director’s chair by Susan Winslow.
Whatever the original cut might have been, it became clear that All This… was going to be a trip when Ambrosia’s version of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ began blaring over footage of a grinning Adolf Hitler. The film proceeds in this manner, veering wildly from Tina Turner screeching ‘Come Together’ as American forces mobilise to ‘Because’ scoring the aerial bombardment of Italy. Describing the film can only do so much. Until you experience it, you cannot fully comprehend the surreal feeling of watching the catastrophe in motion. It is as extravagantly misjudged as setting Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ to images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, or playing Lady Gaga over the Rwandan genocide. It simply does not work.
That said, there’s something weirdly transgressive in juxtaposing the poppy optimism of The Beatles’ music with goose-stepping legions and swastikas and Pearl Harbor. We could pick any example, but perhaps the best is Leo Sayer’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – a song about the pain of nostalgia – accompanying endless clips of heavy artillery fire, followed up by refugees wandering through the wreckage of bombed-out city streets. The idea is sound, but the execution is utterly lacking, especially when we consider that the war was very much still in living memory. (Mercifully, the film goes nowhere near the Holocaust.)
The atmosphere that permeates the film is largely one of cavalier irreverence, like a documentarian equivalent of Doctor Strangelove. The World War II it depicts is almost entirely devoid of context, its sequences linked together by pithy remarks in a string of war-time films and ambassador addresses. It adds nothing to any pre-existing understanding of the war, and neither does it illuminate lesser-known aspects. At times, it’s even quite offensive, like when the Bee Gees croon ‘Sun King’ to footage of Hirohito.
Similarly, while perhaps less broadly egregious, Hitler and Mussolini are both depicted as the Fool on the Hill and the Nowhere Man respectively, with the former in particular treated as a cartoon sideshow; a figure to be mocked and dismissed out of hand, rather than taken deadly seriously for the monstrous demagogue that he was. This is not to say that dictators shouldn’t be ridiculed, or admonished in a humorous way, but I must confess to be ignorant of the magical and/or mysterious qualities of the Nuremberg Rally. It’s almost disappointing that the film doesn’t end with ‘Savoy Truffle’ accompanying the atomic bombs; that honour instead goes to, in the only vaguely appropriate decision throughout the film, ‘The End’.
All told, there are moments of strange brilliance here and there. The most notable comes with the Bee Gees’ version of ‘Golden Slumbers’, mixed in with the Blitzkrieg as Londoners huddle together in the Underground. There’s something beautiful and intimate for this one fleeting minute, a moment of brief respite before we’re swept back into the tide of ill-conceived insanity, but it’s genuinely lovely while it lasts. It’s certainly on the nose – see ‘Get Back’ going alongside the Germans being pushed back for another, eye-rolling example – but ‘Golden Slumbers’ represents the flicker of the good idea buried beneath the overall concept.
The other comes during the credits, where Hot Chocolate’s take on ‘Give Peace a Chance’ plays. Depending on your perspective, this can be seen to codify the film’s intended message in suitably blatant terms. The reality is, if that is the intended message, the message is smothered by the prior onslaught of baffling thematic decisions and tonal imbalance. It’s hard to think of something so brazenly tasteless proliferating in modern society – and I’m partly referring to the blatant racism in some of the Hollywood footage – but even if we view the film as an exercise in our relationship with media and the nature of editing, it’s still unsuccessful.
While ‘Golden Slumbers’ made some sense, it’s impossible to form any sensible connection between ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and America preparing for war. Even worse is the connection between newsreel footage of Japanese immigrants being forcibly removed from their communities to the sound of ‘Let it Be’, as headlines cry: “Last Japs Leave L.A.!” If this was intended to be a reflexive commentary on America’s poor treatment of these communities, it’s undercut by the comedic touches present elsewhere. It’s tenuous at best and wildly offensive at worst.
All This and World War II trips over itself at every turn, as though it was intentionally trying to baffle the audience and conceal its own meaning. As a result, the film bombed at the box office and was excoriated by critics, who generally described it as a crass indictment of Seventies laissez-faire attitudes. After only a fortnight, it was outperformed by its own soundtrack, abruptly removed from cinemas by Fox and quietly shuffled into the annals of obscurity, unearthed only by the most die-hard of Beatles fanatics (or idle Wikipedia browsing, whichever).
And yet, despite being a near-complete failure on almost every level, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It was a bewitching experience to behold, in all its weird wildness, and it’s not something I’m planning on forgetting any time soon. It’s a fascinating failure; especially for students of editing to see, if nothing else, how cuts and context (fail to) dictate meaning. It is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Note: All the film footage sourced in All This… is noted here – this is the only site I’ve been able to find with detailed information about the film and its production. It’s a great read.