I’m a bit peeved. It’s always been a dream of mine to write a book on the most brilliant anti-war film of all time. No, I’m not talking about All Quiet on the Western Front, The Thin Red Line or Pauly Shores’ In the Army Now. I’m talking about the greatest, quite possibly never-to-be-topped, most triumphant bit of film-making/script-writing genius ever imagined: Duck Soup.
Yes. The mother-effin’ greatest anti-war film of all time just might be a Marx Brothers film.
And I procrastinated too long to write the first real treatment of it.
Years I sat on the idea of this book. For some reason I kept thinking, ‘After I write this book on Christian anarchy or martyrdom or, hey, I’ve got a great idea: I’ll go on a search for Satan! Maybe I can even sell my soul to the devil to become the next Harpo Marx. Yeah, then I’ll be able to write such a book with great authority!” Well, to my dismay (why do I always think of The Beastie Boys when I say that?), I’m too late. The book has been written, and it appears that the author didn’t even have to make a pact with Satan to do it.
Roy Blount Jr. beat me to the punch with his recent book, Hail Hail, Euphoria: Presenting The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, The Greatest War Movie Ever Made. I’ve been pouring through it with a sense of utter joy and complete animosity for the writer. My only complaint is that it should have been sub-titled The Greatest Anti-War Movie Ever Made. But, as you read the book or, preferably, watch the film, that goes without saying.
Unfortunately, this movie rarely gets its due because it’s not hauntingly realistic in the sense of Apocalypse Now or as poetically deft as Ballad of a Soldier. Instead, it is absurd. Its players are absurd, its plot is absurd, the score is absurd, and, more importantly, its message is absurd. Which is why, I’m guessing, it’s still not genuinely appreciated. (Granted, many ‘Marxists’ rightly claim that this is probably their best film. I prefer A Night at the Opera, but that’s because I am so desperate to see someone cut through the pomposity that has become fashionably attached to the so-called ‘arts.’)
The film itself was not a box-office hit, yet it remains one of their most meaningful and memorable projects. It was significant enough to save Mickey Sachs from committing suicide in Hannah and Her Sisters, and it still functions as the greatest lampooning of war, and its makers, to this day.
After watching the first clip, listen to the lyrics in this one (which immediately follows the clip above) and prepare yourself for the greatest moment in musical cinematic history (just between 1:58-2:04). The entire musical number is fantastic because it’s making fun of not just pep rallies, mawkish war hymns and the film industry, but of musical numbers itself. Yet, at that one particular moment . . . ah, such wonderful clarity.
I admit to never caring much for some of the songs found in the Marx Brothers films. Granted, there are five or six of them that I rotate on my shuffle (imagine Groucho’s Lydia the Tattooed Lady playing in between bands like Earth Crisis and Fifteen–go figure). I prefer the non sequiturs, puns, humorous stabs at misogyny, and the beautiful insanity of the world’s greatest clown. But I don’t think this film could ever accomplish what it was attempting to accomplish without its occasional foray into ridiculous song and dance. After all, the very idea of breaking into song and dance during wartime (which for those of us in the U.S. is pretty much never-ending) is quite scandalous (especially if sentimental jingoist Bette Midler is taking lead). Yet, the Marx Brothers blasted through it because their task was to deride everything pretentious. Musicals, wars, horse-racing, the academy . . . these were all objects of their witty destructive impulses. And what was left in the rubble was the subtle indication that what is does not have to be.
Of course, such thinking is probably absurd.
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.