Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Bed Sitting Room

(UK, 1969)

There is a short and happily diminishing list of movies I’d like to see but are very hard to find. They are not necessarily great movies—some of them are, but some are not even very good—but I saw them once, and would like to see them again. (There are also a few, like Kubrick’s Fear and Desire, that have hardly ever been seen by anyone, but have recently popped up on TCM or elsewhere. I’ve seen it now, and it’s really pretty bad.) Recent movies I’ve checked off the list are things like At Long Last Love (bad), They Might Be Giants (good) and Royal Flash (okay). One still remaining on the list is another one by Richard Lester, How I Won the War, with John Lennon.
Now I can check this one off. I can’t say I liked it, even the first time, when it was new. But it was fascinating, worth taking another look. Other than Dr. Strangelove, this has to be the only movie that makes nuclear war funny. They take entirely different approaches. The former employed very black humor and satire. The Bed Sitting Room approaches from an absurdist angle. Nothing makes sense, because nothing is supposed to make sense. In that way it reminds me of Un Chien Andalou, that brilliant and impenetrable short by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. Their stated purpose was that any time the movie started to make sense, they would take off in a random direction. It’s amazing to me that, knowing this, so many critics saw so much in it. It’s random, dudes! Whatever you’re saying about this movie, you’re saying about your own subconscious.
I’ll give you a few samples. The opening credits are not in alphabetical order, but in order of height, from Rita Tushingham to Ralph Richardson. The very first absurdist element. It’s three (or is it four? no one seems quite sure) years after a nuclear … er, incident, unpleasantness, conflict … no one can bring themselves to say war … that lasted two and a half minutes, including the signing of the peace treaty. Forty million are dead. No one knows who we were fighting. Lost souls wander the wasteland doing incomprehensible things, obsessively. You could say they’ve been driven to madness by the … contretemps … but that doesn’t account for other absurdities. Richardson is an upper-class twit who fears he is turning into a bed sitting room (and he does!), fearing that it might happen in a middle-class neighborhood. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore hover over everything in the hulk of a car suspended beneath a balloon, telling everyone to move along, move along. Rita is 18 months pregnant and bears a monster we never see. Her father turns into a parrot, and they eat him. The new national anthem is “God Bless Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone!” Mrs. Shroake was the queen’s char-woman and only survivor from Buckingham Palace, thus next in line to the throne.
And it goes on like that. It was based on a popular play of the time by John Antrobus and Spike Milligan, who is also in the cast. It’s impossible to care for anything that’s going on, but of course you’re not supposed to. The sets and scenery are outstanding, and there are some very funny moments and situations.
The point of it all? Well, at least it was thought-provoking, and after some thought this occurred to me: Which is the greater madness? The things we see here on the screen, or the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction that dominated our lives during the Cold War, and in some sense continues to this day? What madness is it to see nuclear bombs as reasonable weapons of war? What do you think of a general, a diplomat, a politician who is willing to entertain the thought of 100, 200, 500 million, even a few billion dead people for any reason? Real life can be very, very much crazier than anything Richard Lester put up on the screen here.
Summing up: I’m glad I saw it again, but there’s no need for another viewing. A handful of people will love this, the great majority will hate it, probably won’t make it through to the end. (Lee checked out halfway through.) I fall between those extremes.