Act Naturally: The Films of the Solo Beatles (Part 1)

Prologue: A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Ringo the Actor

When I was a super young Beatles fan in the early ‘80s (age 7-10 or so), there wasn’t much beyond the music itself and a couple of books out there to feed my fandom. So when PBS decided to show the 1982 documentary The Compleat Beatles a few years after it came out, I made sure I was rolling VHS tape on it. In subsequent years, I literally wore out the tape watching and re-watching it. It ended with a brief summary on the activities of each individual Beatle after the break-up. Here’s Ringo’s:

That always puzzled me. “An acting career in Hollywood?” I went to the movies a lot as a kid, and I’d never seen any movie starring Ringo Starr. This statement was also echoed in the handful of Beatles books I had collected. Everyone agreed without contradiction that Ringo became an actor in the 1970s.

As it turns out, this is a bit of an overstatement. Ringo’s acting career never amounted to much, and the film work he did was pretty well removed from anything that can be described as “Hollywood.” 

But thinking about all this recently did get me interested in exploring the work of the solo Beatles on film, one element of their careers that I never delved into all that much.

Collectively, the Beatles were movie stars by the middle of 1964.

There was once a time (the mid-20th century) when a popular singer could reach such a level of universal fame that they would be elevated past being a mere “singer,” to become an “entertainer.” They would be expected to not only sing and continue to sell records by the bushel, but also act in films, and appear on television (frequently poking good-natured fun at themselves in comedy sketches and the like). Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and several others made the cross-over. It was all just homogenous “show business” at a certain point. By the early 1960s, even bands like the Beatles were expected — almost required — to follow the established path. Of course, it was bands like the Beatles and their contemporaries who put an end to this kind of thing by creating the world of modern rock and rebelling against old-school showbiz traditions. But in their early years, they really felt they had no choice but to play along. In October 1963 (when they had been famous in Britain for less than a year and hadn’t broken in the US at all), Beatles manager Brian Epstein signed them to a three-picture deal with United Artists.

It didn’t matter that none of the Beatles expressed an iota of interest in acting, because United Artists didn’t have an iota of interest in the Beatles as actors. They wanted the lucrative rights to the soundtrack album, which they hoped to cash in on before the Beatles fad died (as everyone was certain it would, any week now). Someone could have filmed the Beatles reading the phone book against a blank wall, and as long as some songs were interspersed in there, UA would be happy. Luckily, that’s not what happened.

What happened was they ended up making a really good movie. 

While contract negotiations were underway, United Artists producer Walter Shenson had a lunch with Richard Lester, who had just directed the Mouse That Roared sequel (The Mouse on the Moon) for Shenson and UA. When Shenson mentioned he would likely be handling an upcoming Beatles film, Lester eagerly asked if he could direct it. Shenson thought it was a wonderful idea.

Lester — described by singer/writer/eccentric George Melly as “an amiable space creature, very thin, with a great domed bald head, tiny childlike features and large kind eyes” — was born in Philadelphia, but had been working in television in the UK since the early 1950s, and had a couple of feature films under his belt by late 1963. He was 31 years old when he took on the Beatles’ first film, very youthful by today’s standards, but in the world of early ‘60s pop music, where both artists and fans were in their teens or not much past, he was an “adult.” A sophisticated lover of modern jazz who was a decent hand on the piano, no less. But unlike a lot of other “adults,” he did not look down on pop music, and the Beatles were on his radar pretty early. And when the Beatles heard Lester had been tapped to direct their movie, they approved wholeheartedly. They knew Lester had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, a surreal short featuring their comedy idols, Goon Show stars Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. 

Richard Lester

Lester brought in Liverpool playwright Alun Owen to craft a script. Owen traveled with the band during their two-day trip to Ireland (November 7-8, 1963), and was able to distill their personalities and transcribe some of their witty remarks into his Oscar-nominated screenplay, which was an exaggerated “day in the life of the Beatles.” Aware that the group had no experience as professional actors, Owen made sure that no Beatle had more than one line at a time. Lester had a tight schedule (six weeks in March and early April 1964) and a microscopic budget, but he used the limitations to his advantage, presenting the band in a gritty, black-and-white, semi-documentary style.

When A Hard Day’s Night hit cinemas in the summer of ‘64, the established film critics found themselves astonished that they actually enjoyed a movie about a bunch of pop musicians. Their positive reviews carried almost a puzzled air. Could this be possible? Lester’s film was fast-paced, inventive, and a great example of deadpan British humor. All of the Beatles acquitted themselves quite well, but one member was always singled out by the critics for individual praise — Ringo Starr. Ringo had a lengthy solo sequence two-thirds of the way through the film. Feeling put-upon by his bandmates, he ditches rehearsals to go on a lonely ramble along the Thames. He projects an air of melancholy and vulnerability, and the viewers’ hearts go right out to him. (His secret to “acting” this scene? He had been partying all night the night before, never went to bed, and was sleepy and hungover as the cameras rolled early in the morning.)

Although all the Beatles were natural performers — they just exuded charisma — everyone decided that Ringo was the one who had the potential to be a true actor. So he became the central figure (not exactly “star”) of the Beatles’ next film, 1965’s Help! Lester was once again at the helm, and engineered a complete departure from the Hard Day’s Night style — this time he went with glorious Pop Art color, and a pretty silly “story” (originally concocted as a Peter Sellers vehicle) about a cursed ring on Ringo’s finger. It was essentially a live-action cartoon, and the critics weren’t quite as effusive as they were for A Hard Day’s Night. But the music was as good as ever, spoofing the globe-trotting James Bond series was fun, and once again Ringo was noted for the special quality he brought to the screen. The band even paid tribute to the budding Brando in their midst by recording a cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” with Ringo singing lead. They enjoyed a good working relationship with Lester, and considered him a friend.

There was one more film left on their United Artists contract, and if they followed the pattern of 1964 and 1965, then they would produce a film (and accompanying soundtrack album) for a summer 1966 release. 

It did not come to pass.

A Talent For Loving and Up Against It

In the 1500s, an Aztec curse is placed on a Spanish conquistador…he and all of his descendants until the end of time will be consumed by insatiable lust from the moment of their first carnal encounter. Flash forward three centuries…Mexico, 1871. A prosperous ranch owner (and victim of the curse) is trying to marry off his virginal daughter before the curse “ruins” her. A series of competitions between two young ranch hands will determine which one has enough physical stamina to meet her needs and keep her honorably faithful in the bonds of matrimony…

This is the plot of A Talent For Loving or, The Great Cowboy Race, a 1961 novel by Richard Condon (famous at the time as the author of The Manchurian Candidate). It was an interesting attempt to combine a post-modern Western tale with an irreverent sex farce. In an odd move, Brian Epstein secured the film rights, envisioning this as a potential vehicle for the Beatles.

At what point “Beatles” and “Old West comedy about nymphomania” blended together in Brian Epstein’s mind is unclear (or maybe it was someone else’s suggestion), but it seems that the Beatles were big western fans, and evidently they had been bitten by the acting bug. They wanted to play actual characters instead of “the Beatles.” A screenplay written by Condon and his wife Evelyn was completed by March 1965 (literally while Help! was shooting), and it was hoped they could film in September. “No reason why Liverpool lads shouldn’t be out there [in the West],” said Condon confidently, “complete with accents, lariats, and six-shooters.” Walter Shenson was brought into the picture that summer, confirming this was to be the Beatles’ third UA release. But the film went into re-write hell — it seems it was more difficult than anticipated to incorporate four Liverpudlians into a western set in Mexico. The September shooting window came and went, because no one was happy with the script. By December, the project was dead. Times were changing fast, the Beatles were growing artistically by leaps and bounds, and they had soured on the idea of “playing cowboys” in a comedy. They also had genuine concerns about recording an appropriate soundtrack (19th-century Mexican balladry was not their forte). If they had to do another movie, they wanted something modern and cutting-edge. Epstein and Shenson went back to script hunting, still hoping to get a Beatles film into theaters sometime in 1966.

Any time the Beatles’ possible participation in a western comes up in discussion on a website, it is universally accompanied by one or more of these cowboy-themed images from a September 1964 photo shoot at the end of their summer tour of the US

[A Talent For Loving was eventually made in 1969, with Shenson still producing. It starred Richard Widmark (playing a middle-aged Civil War vet), Cesar Romero (playing the ranch owner), and Topol (playing a Mexican generalissimo with as much subtlety as the Frito Bandito). Obviously, none of these parts were suitable for the Beatles. I can only speculate that the two cowboys in competition for the rancher’s daughter would have become four cowboys, the four cowboys would also be British immigrants, and the parts would be much more fleshed out and important than the two hunky empty hats in the released version. Good ol’ Ringo probably would have been the victor.] 

It soon became apparent that there would be no 1966 Beatles movie, but a contract was a contract, and there was always 1967. In late ‘66, Walter Shenson commissioned writer Owen Holder to craft a script that would meet the “modern, cutting-edge” requirement. Holder came up with Shades of a Personality, the story of a young man (Holder envisioned Lennon in the lead role) with three separate personalities, to be embodied by the other three Beatles. (Classic rock fans will recognize this as very similar to the Who’s 1973 concept album Quadrophenia.)

Holder’s script was met with little enthusiasm from the group. They really did not want to do another “Beatles” movie at this point. So desperate were they to not appear in front of the cameras that they tried to give United Artists an independently-produced animated film that had their likenesses (but not their actual voices) and a few new songs. (Yellow Submarine was distributed by UA in 1968, but it did not fulfill their contract.)

Joe Orton

Hoping to entice them with edgiest of cutting-edge, Brian Epstein gave the Holder screenplay to Joe Orton for a re-write. Orton was the “bad boy” of British theater at that time. Plays like Loot and What the Butler Saw caused a sensation due to their explicitness and dark-humored nihilism. Orton began working on the Beatles project in January of 1967. He injected the material with a healthy dose of sadomasochism, polyamory, and gay subtext. He submitted the revised script — now called Up Against It — to the Beatles’ management. After several months with no word, the script was simply returned to him without comment. Free to entertain other options on the script, Orton was due to attend a meeting with producer Oscar Lowenstein and director Richard Lester on August 9, 1967. His body was discovered that day in his London flat, having been bluedgeoned to death by his boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell (whose body was nearby — he committed suicide by overdose). Eighteen days later, Brian Epstein died of an accidental overdose. (Paul McCartney admitted in 1997 that the Beatles had been frightened off the Orton project by the homosexual themes in the script.)

Less than two months after the death of their manager, the very first solo Beatle film would be released. 

Here’s my format for discussing the films of the solo Beatles:

No TV movies, no concert films, no documentaries, no popping up as themselves in a cameo. These are narrative films released in cinemas in which they play a character. (I fudged it a little on Give My Regards to Broad Street in which Paul McCartney plays a “fictional” rock star that, based on all observable evidence, is pretty much “Paul McCartney.”) I will watch each film in its entirety at least once, most of them for the first time in many years, and a few of them for the first time ever. Release dates will generally be for the British release, unless otherwise noted.

HOW I WON THE WAR

Released: October 18, 1967

Director: Richard Lester

Producer: Richard Lester

Screenwriter: Charles Wood, based on a novel by Patrick Ryan

Studio: United Artists

Cast: Michael Crawford, John Lennon, Roy Kinnear, Lee Montague, Jack MacGowran, Michael Hordern, Jack Hedley, Karl Michael Vogler, Ronald Lacey, James Cossins

How I Won The War is a lot of things at once. Anti-war satire. Surrealism. Absurdism. Meta-comedy. Black comedy. “The best film of its kind since Dr. Strangelove. Brilliant, unnerving,” said one reviewer. “A pretentious train wreck,” said another. All of these descriptions are accurate.

The story — if it can be called that — is about a small troop of British light cavalry (from the fictional “4th Musketeers” regiment) who are sent behind enemy lines in the North African desert during World War II to build a cricket pitch in order to impress an important general. The troop is led by Lieutenant Ernest Goodbody (Michael Crawford), a cheerfully inept, unqualified, and blindly jingoistic young officer who has a naive trust in the righteousness of the British Army, a firm belief in the “glory” of warfare, and a total obliviousness to the fact that all the men serving under him think he’s a complete twat and hate his guts. 

How I Won The War is told in flashback. Goodbody is captured in the last days of the war attempting to cross the Rhine River, and begins telling his self-serving tale to a sympathetic Nazi officer named Odlebog (Karl Michael Vogler). The main narrative in North Africa (1942) is bookended by two shorter sequences. We meet the troop in basic training (1940), still in their civilian tweeds and cardigans, and carrying fake wooden rifles. We conclude with the troop’s minuscule role in the liberation of France (1944).

The film is loosely based on the 1963 novel by former British Army officer Patrick Ryan. Richard Lester was a fan of the book, bought the rights to it, and formed his own production company to bring it to the screen. The similarities between book and film are limited. They share the same cynical, anti-war sentiment and some character names, but otherwise the screenplay by Charles Wood is its own beast. Wood, a peacetime veteran of the ‘50s British Army, was first and foremost a playwright, and frequently cast a jaundiced eye on the uncritical mythologizing of World War II. (His play Dingo, staged the same year as How I Won The War hit cinemas, was even more unsparing in its treatment of overbearing wartime nationalism.) Wood was a frequent collaborator with Richard Lester, and was also the primary writer on Help! (skillfully adapting Marc Behm’s original Peter Sellers story into a vehicle for the Beatles — in addition to being a major voice in British theater, Wood was also a first-class adapter for film and television). Pre-production and casting began in July 1966, and Richard Lester reached out not to Ringo but to John, offering him a part in the film.

At about 10 p.m. on August 29, 1966, the last note the Beatles ever played before a paying audience rang out at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It was the end of an era. Exactly one week later, John Lennon was on a plane to Hanover, Germany, to play a part in How I Won The War. “There were many reasons to do it,” John said later. “A) it was Dick Lester, and he asked me; b) it was anti-war; and c) I didn’t know what to do because the Beatles had stopped touring and I thought if I stopped and thought about it I was going to have a big bum trip for nine months so I tried to avoid the depression of the change of life by leaping into the movie.” On September 6, the German press had a field day photographing John having his long Beatle hair and sideburns trimmed into a proper 1940s style. He and Lester also decided his character should wear round-rimmed military issue spectacles. The very near-sighted John, who had mostly hidden his old Buddy Holly-style glasses from photographers, adopted the look publicly, and wore his “granny glasses” for the rest of his life. 

The production spent ten days in the countryside and little villages between Bremen and Hanover, Germany, which stood in for both rural France and the Catterick Garrison in Yorkshire (for the basic training scenes). “I was just a bundle of nerves the first day,” John admitted. “I couldn’t hardly speak. My first speech was in a forest on patrol and I was supposed to say, ‘My heart’s not in it anymore,’ and it wasn’t.”  The company then moved to Almeria, on the southern coast of Spain, for six weeks. Almeria was a favorite location for European filmmakers, having the ability to look like the American southwest or Mexico (for “spaghetti westerns,” more on those later), or the Middle East, or the Sahara Desert, as it was used here. 

Michael Crawford (who would take Broadway by storm twenty years later as the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera) shared a luxurious Spanish villa (“Santa Isabel”) with John during the location shoot, and remembered him constantly playing a repetitive riff on his acoustic guitar. “He used to sit cross-legged on the beach or on the bed, working out a melody,” said Crawford. “I heard him playing the same bar over and over again until he got the right sequence.” Crawford was also an ear-witness to the creation of what was then the song’s opening line: Living is easy with eyes closed/Misunderstanding all you see…

Michael Crawford as Lt. Ernest Goodbody

John’s part in the film wrapped on November 5, and he was on a plane to England the very next day. The day after that — November 7, 1966 — he had his fortuitous first encounter with conceptual artist Yoko Ono. When the Beatles returned to the recording studio on November 24, John’s Almeria song — “Strawberry Fields Forever” — was the first track put on tape. (He also referenced the movie in the lyrics of “A Day in the Life,” recorded in January: I saw a film today, oh boy/The English army had just won the war…

Ringo visits John on location, October 1966

In an eye roll-worthy yet completely understandable move, United Artists attempted to capitalize on the Beatles’ massive fame, and hyped up John Lennon as the film’s “co-star,” giving him equal space on the poster and in the opening titles with Michael Crawford. In reality, the film — Crawford aside — was an ensemble. And it’s a very good ensemble. Lee Montague plays the tough Sergeant Transom (who really runs the troop) with a resigned fatalism. The stocky Roy Kinnear (another frequent Lester collaborator) as Private Clapper represents every ordinary, unambitious working stiff thrust by conscription into being a warrior in the cause of global freedom (while constantly fretting that his wife is cheating on him). James Cossins as Private Drogue is every well-meaning, slightly dim-witted classmate or co-worker that you can’t quite remember once they leave. Ronald Lacey (later to have his face melted as the Gestapo officer Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark) as Private Spool represents overall military pointlessness. He’s a wireless radio operator on a mission where radio silence is required. (“What’s the point of even having a wireless?” “We can’t have ‘wireless silence’ without a wireless, can we?”). Jack MacGowran is Private Juniper, attempting to “work his ticket” (i.e., get discharged on medical grounds) by going insane. Lennon is Private Gripweed, Goodbody’s batman. Gripweed is overly fawning and obsequious to Goodbody’s face, but sabotages him behind his back in various petty ways at every turn. He’s also a kleptomaniac, and a former (?) follower of Oswald Mosley’s British fascist movement. (Naturally, none of the authoritarian senior officers are much concerned with Gripweed’s political alignment. “Fascism is something you grow out of,” sniffs Micheal Hordern’s Colonel Grapple, the funniest character in the film.)

Transom, Clapper, Gripweed, Spool, Juniper, Drogue

How I Won The War contains elements of the very silly, lightweight, and long-running Carry On film series, and foreshadows the surreal stream-of-consciousness comedy of Monty Python. There is also a deep vein of bitter anger in the film. The anger is directed not necessarily against World War II (few would argue that the fight against the Nazis was unneeded), but against the notion that the war somehow automatically ennobled its participants. The insane Private Juniper takes on the persona of a gung-ho general, spouting empty rah-rah platitudes and “inspirational” aphorisms. Members of Goodbody’s troop who are killed over the course of the film are replaced by silent stand-ins, completely painted over in a single bright color (like a plastic toy soldier)…and their uniforms are from World War I. Their being replaced by these eerie ghosts from a previous war is never acknowledged by anyone. One of the only lines of dialogue heard by the “toy” replacements at the very end of the film is “I hear there’s this Vietnam thing coming up.”

There are many terrifically funny moments in How I Won The War, but there is a level of difficulty in that the film is authentically, relentlessly British. An American viewer will need to cling to the subtitle option on the DVD, and a working knowledge of mid-century British vernacular, slang, and their incredibly insular and idiosyncratic turns of phrase is essential. Even a dedicated Anglophile like the Holy Bee will find some term or reference whizzing by them, uncomprehended. There are moments where I admit, I had no idea what was going on at all. And I don’t even know if I say that out of frustration or admiration. 

Michael Hordern as Col. Grapple

Not only do we have an unreliable narrator in the person of the rather odious Goodbody, we have an unreliable everything. There are layers of distortion to all aspects of character and plot. The characters are all aware they are in a film, and address the camera frequently. (“I die in North Africa,” Drogue announces to the viewer almost proudly during the basic training sequence.) Sometimes we see the audience watching the film (a brief appearance from the same two middle-aged ladies who waved at the Beatles in the opening of Help!). Sometimes the film is seen as a stage play full of hoary old wartime cliches. We can’t trust our eyes and ears. Is Clapper’s wife really cheating on him, or is she just living vicariously through her promiscuous neighbor? Does Juniper really spend much of the film literally wearing baggy, checkered clown pants, or is it just a visual metaphor for his (real or feigned) insanity? When a character dies, we not only see his death in the context of the story we’re following, but flashes of the same character’s death in a separate time and place during the war. What point was Lester and Wood trying to make with that? I don’t know.

We also have an indictment of the British class system. Goodbody will never truly connect with his men because he sees himself as inherently above them based on his upbringing. Like most foot soldiers then and now, the troop is largely working-class. But Goodbody’s not even upper-class (the way previous generations of British officers were). He’s upwardly-mobile middle-class (an ambitious “grammar school boy,” as he’s frequently described), which, by the 1940s, is just barely enough to lord over perceived social inferiors. The soldiers in his troop constantly toy with the idea of killing him outright (and deliberately avoid helping him when he’s in life-threatening situations), and you can’t help but hope they actually do so.  

At the end, Goodbody realizes he has more common with the Nazi officer who has captured him than the men he commands. Even though they’re on opposing sides of a war, they are of the same class, and class trumps everything. Goodbody even accepts that his own worldview is actually pretty fascist. After Odlebog literally sells the last bridge over the Rhine to Goodbody (capitalism always triumphs over all other systems), the two exchange salutes — Odlebog performing the classic British palm-out forehead salute, and Goodbody chillingly giving the “sieg heil” salute. How I Won The War says the existing patriarchal societies are essentially the same among white upper-middle class types, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Goodbody bonds with his new Nazi pal

“The older generation feel a comforting nostalgia at having survived the Second World War. They talk about their finest hour, they say “the army makes a man of you” and proudly tell you how many Germans they killed…One of the major obscenities of war is the war film itself. It is treated as a big, colorful adventure story, with extras being mowed down…In order to bring all this home to people, I had to make the film a violent statement. A lot of ordinary soldiers are not just following orders — they are actually enjoying the war.”

— Richard Lester

After a few post-production delays, How I Won The War finally opened a year after it was shot, to decidedly mixed reviews. “If I fall under a bus tomorrow,” said Lester shortly after the film’s release, “this is the film I want to be judged by.” Upon hearing this, one film critic remarked “My advice to you, Mr. Lester, is to look left, look right, look left again!” The film is a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess. Lester’s biographer, Andrew Yule, calls it the most challenging film he’s ever seen. Audiences left the ostensible comedy “confused, puzzled and depressed.” The film was considered a box-office failure, despite the heavily-advertised presence of a Beatle. A crowd of people turned away Lennon sang of the film in a song recored ten months before its release. Maybe he had an intuition.

John Lennon, as one small part of a larger ensemble, does a fine job with what little screen time he’s given. Private Gripweed is a shady, self-serving sneak thief, but he does have a moral code. In his two pivotal scenes, he refuses on principle to take out the despised Goodbody when he’s encouraged to do so by Sergeant Transom, and confesses to mistakenly emptying the troop’s water supply when he could have kept quiet about it.

Lennon succeeds in playing his scenes quite effectively, and it’s a shame that How I Won The War was the first and last solo John Lennon film. He was too restless and had too short of an attention span to be a true film actor. 

“It was pretty damn boring to me,” he remarked when all was said and done. “I didn’t find it at all very fulfilling.”

Oh dear…In my desire to spill everything I know (or recently found out) about the Beatles’ acting careers, I find I’ve reached my (admittedly arbitrary) word count limit after discussing exactly one of their solo films. More to come next month…and probably the month after.

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