On the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, check out his acting work

John Lennon's only acting gig outside the Beatles movies was Richard Lester's satirical "How I Won the War."
John Lennon’s only acting gig outside the Beatles movies was Richard Lester’s satirical “How I Won the War.”

The 8th of December is the day, in 1980, John Lennon was gunned down by deranged fan Mark David Chapman. Lennon, like the Beatles, has been examined every which way, even idolized in a way that sands over his rougher edges. But there are plenty of Lennon ware that gets ignored: many of his solo albums; his by-many-accounts unlistenable (but maybe not!) art records with Yoko Ono; the couple’s far more approachable avant-garde films, like the searingly unpleasant “Rape”; his books, packed silly with aggressive wordplay.

And then there’s his acting. We don’t mean “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” (Both are classics, although there’s an argument to be made that “Help!” is even better. It’s goofier and its absurd sense of humor, while more director Richard Lester and writer Charles Wood than the Beatles, anticipates the likes of Monty Python.) We mean the only film in which he didn’t play himself (or “himself”).

That would be “How I Won the War,” made in 1967. A dense, kaleidoscopic and bracing satire, it was once again made by the team of Lester and Wood. Lester was a poppy stylist who married fast paced imagery — he was called “the grandfather of the music video,” over which he half-jokingly asked for a blood test — to a bemused and skeptical worldview. Wood was, like Lennon, an incorrigible wordsmith. He and Lester, who had invented a new, faster brand of film comedy, were perfect together.

Despite dominating its advertisements, Lennon is only a supporting player in “How I Won the War.” (The lack of a big role did free him up to write “Strawberry Fields Forever” while on location.) The lead is played by Michael Crawford, the future Phantom of the Opera who at that point was a go-to bumbling, stammering, pratfalling man-child. (That’s the role he played in Lester’s “The Knack,” which won the Palme d’Or in 1965. Eerily, that film is set on December 8.) The film was based on a satirical novel by Patrick Ryan, but Lester and Wood went father into absurdism than did Ryan. Here, Crawford’s obliviously proper Lieutenant takes his troops, all of who hate him, to North Africa on the necessary mission to set up a cricket pitch.

The plot is beyond loose, there to buttress a frankly exhausting stream of gags and Brechtian devices. The film repeatedly calls attention to itself. Actors, among them Lennon’s Gripweed, address the camera. The antics of the token clownish troop (Jack MacGowran) — who, as it’s gradually revealed, is actually totally insane — sometimes get fitted with a laugh track, decades before Oliver Stone did the same thing in “Natural Born Killers.”

Other gags aren’t so upbeat. One poor troop keeps cheerfully announcing to the camera “I die in North Africa!”; when he does, it’s unexpectedly devastating. In the most ghoulish running joke, soldiers that die are suddenly replaced by mute, purely work-driven soldiers who are painted a single color, like lifesize, animated toy soldiers. They’re mementos of the departed, forcing us (but not the characters) to remember they’re gone.

By “How I Won the War,” made two years after “Help!”, Lester was becoming increasingly serious. His subsequent film would be the emotionally gutting (though still fast and dense and funny) “Petulia,” a Summer of Love summation with career peak work from Julie Christie and George C. Scott. “How I Won the War” is incredibly angry, and its humor is sarcastic, strident and not always intentionally funny. The film is wearying in spots, but that’s as it should be.

Lester has spoken about how he wanted to make a film that was truly anti-war. Most anti-war films, he charged (as did Francois Truffaut), still made battles look fun and adventurous. “How I Won the War” features none of this, and even includes quotes on the soundtrack from the score to “Lawrence of Arabia.” The battle scenes are hectic and crazy and wholly lacking in comedy. Lester tints the screen a bold color, and we wait for the madness to end and the colors to return to normal. (Some prints go black-and-white.)

The final battle even features a moment even more chilling than its makers could have imagined. Lennon’s character is fatally wounded. He drops to the ground and, still alive and lucid, stares into the camera. “I knew this would happen. You knew it would happen, didn’t you?”

Luckily, the only way to see “How I Won the War” is on Vudu. Netflix has shuffled it off of their Instant service, so you can rewatch “Orange is the New Black” for the third time.


Jews in eastern Ukraine ordered to register, Kerry…

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned reports that Jews in eastern Ukraine had been ordered to register with the authorities "or suffer the consequences."


Chelsea Clinton pregnant with first child

Chelsea Clinton is pregnant with her first child.


Divers struggle in search for South Korean ferry…

By Jungmin Jang and Narae KimMOKPO/JINDO, South Korea (Reuters) - Rescuers struggled with strong waves and murky waters on Thursday as they searched for hundreds…


New Hampshire moves to decriminalize adultery

For the first time in hundreds of years, it's about to be legal to cheat on your spouse in New Hampshire.


Dick Wolf to bring fictionalized world of 'Law…

A&E has ordered a pilot called "D.O.A." from "Law and Order" mastermind Dick Wolf that will focus on real detectives reexamining cold cases. A trio…


Review: 'Transcendence' is not stupid but sometimes lacks…

The cyberthriller "Transcendence" explores artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and other ethical quandaries, but has too much ambition, if anything.


Shane West talks WGN America's 'Salem'

The actor on history lessons, a new network and showing his butt.


Review: 'Fading Gigolo' finds few jokes in women…

John Turturro writes, directs and stars in "Fading Gigolo," in which he plays a prostitute whose pimp is Woody Allen. And there's still very few jokes.


Carmelo Anthony agonizing over Knicks future as season…

There’s still the cloud hanging over the franchise’s head as to the pending free-agent status of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony.


Jets host players with eye toward NFL Draft

The Jets hosted a number of NFL Draft hopefuls for workouts on Thursday, with an eye toward some under-the-radar players.


Chris Johnson: I wanted to go to 'a…

Now that Chris Johnson is a Jet, the team has to figure out if one of the most explosive players in the NFL over the last half decade has anything…


Rangers' speed versus Flyers' size makes interesting playoff…

Among the myriad aspects that will make this Metropolitan Division semifinal series fascinating will be the battle between the Rangers' speed and the Flyers' size,…


Light-up nail art syncs with phone

This Japanese technology syncs light-up nail art with your phone.


Why is dance cardio taking off in NYC?

Instructors at some of the city's hottest classes explain why.


Earth Day travel in the Florida Keys

See why this eco-friendly destination deserves your attention.


Sorry, Facebook — FarmVille goes mobile with 'Country…

Zynga has released a version of the hit "FarmVille" tailored for smartphones and tablets in the hope of reaping a bumper crop of players.