John Lennon was that most curious of characters: A born acting talent, he was reluctant to acquiesce to the calling, and put his feet on the boards. But he did give one striking performance in How I Won The War (1967), a probing war drama that saw him reunite with A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester. The film was recorded during a brief respite from The Beatles, as Paul McCartney focused on soundtrack work and George Harrison travelled to India in an effort to focus on his sitar practice.
The process was not one that Lennon considered anything grander than a passing hobby and by 1969, it was Ringo Starr who emerged as the acting Beatle, working on projects with luminaries Peter Sellers, John Cleese and Frank Zappa.
This is more the pity when you realise just how nicely Lennon acquits himself to the realm of camera, bringing pithy pathos to the comedy, delving into the absurd with the right level of humility and understanding. He was naturally comical, often turning press conferences into powerhouses of wit and great performance.
He would turn questions on their head, creating a bastion of wit, portraying his interviewees as the combatants he imagined them to be. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore saw the comic in Lennon, inviting him to appear on their sketch show, Not Only, But Also, much as Lester felt that Lennon had screen presence, putting the Beatle in many of A Hard Day’s Night more scintillating scenes (he delicately thought McCartney “tried too hard”, which was his code for “stop”.)
But the venture was also part of Lennon’s continuum as an artist, delving into disparate facets. “I feel I want to be them all– painter, writer, actor, singer, player, musician;” Lennon admitted. “I want to try them all, and I’m lucky enough to be able to. I want to see which one turns me on. This is for me, this film, because apart from wanting to do it because of what it stands for, I want to see what I’ll be like when I’ve done it.”
“I don’t want people taking things from me that aren’t really me” he continued. “They make you something that they want to make you, that isn’t really you. They come and talk to find answers, but they’re their answers, not us. We’re not Beatles to each other, you know. It’s a joke to us. If we’re going out the door of the hotel, we say, ‘Right! Beatle John! Beatle George now! Come on, let’s go!’ We don’t put on a false front or anything. But we just know that leaving the door, we turn into Beatles because everybody looking at us sees the Beatles. We’re not the Beatles at all. We’re just us.”
What we get with How I Won The War, therefore, is someone who is trying to create an image of themselves outside of The Beatles, demonstrating his sense of reality and place in the world. Ultimately, the performance stemmed from his place of truth, as Lennon had grown up in a Liverpool that was drenched by bombs and warfare.
Humour armoured him, much as it did when he watched two parents walking away from him as a young five-year-old boy, and he brings that detached sense of lethargy to the role in question. Lennon’s turn as Gripweed is one of his more engaging characters, and between takes, he enjoyed writing with greater vigour and finesse. Ruminating on his childhood, Lennon came up with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, demonstrating a portrait of his childhood home in kaleidoscopic strokes, bringing his inner comedian and painter.
Unlike McCartney, Lennon avoids hamming it up for the cameras and takes his time to circulate his domicile, bringing a small scale, lo-fi performance that is high on energy and spirit. Somewhere between the takes, the character finds the time to reconcile with his spiritual journey in a battleground that is growing less tolerant of mistakes or failure but creates a newer sense of purpose and place.
It suited Lennon to play it down because it allowed him to realise that subtlety was stronger than performance. If there was anything overstated, it was done in conjunction with the beats of the script in question, and the narrative beats made by the film in question.
But by 1968, his artistry made a side turn, made a turn into a more honest avenue, as he used his platform to excoriate the demons that were swimming inside of his head. Bolstered by his success as a rock singer, he decided to make the turn into more confessional rock, which started a more inventive form of art that gave him more pleasure than acting ever did. How I Won The War is a curious, but insightful, look into Lennon’s growth as an artist, bringing the guitarist back to his theatrical roots.