The famous mop-top haircut, leather jacket and guitar are gone, replaced by military fatigues and army boots. Yet the slight young man enjoying a game of cricket in the desert is unmistakable.
The pictures of John Lennon, taken in 1966 and seen here for the first time, show him on the set of the film How I Won The War during a brief break from The Beatles. Directed by Richard Lester, who also made A Hard Day’s Night and Help! with the Fab Four, the film offered Lennon, then 26, a serious acting role.
It also gave him a rare opportunity to escape from his increasingly enervating life with The Beatles, who were at the peak of their fame and besieged by screaming fans wherever they went.
It had been a stressful year for Lennon. In March of that year, he had caused worldwide outrage with his comment in an interview that The Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’. Partly as a result of the public backlash, particularly in America, their tour of the US that August would be their last.
Just a month later he was on the set of the film, in which he played Private Gripweed, alongside Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em star Michael Crawford in the lead role.
An absurdist comedy, it was set in North Africa during the Second World War, although its anti-war message was seen as a commentary on the situation in Vietnam, which was escalating at the time.
Photographer Zdenko Hirschler visited the blisteringly hot set in Andalusia, Spain, arriving during a tea break in which Lennon displayed his legendary dry wit. Hirschler said Lennon was holding a cup of tea and a sandwich.
‘He told me, “See? One does not have to be a star to get a sandwich and a tea – but it helps to get you to the front of the waiting line.”
‘In spite of his military uniform, he looked like a young student – fresh, clean and happy. He was 26 but looked like a teenager.’
He was thrilled to be involved in the film, in which he first wore the round glasses which would become his trademark, hoping acting might provide him with a new direction.
He told Hirschler: ‘No more travelling, no more tours. We are going to split, for a while at least.’
Paul McCartney and girlfriend Jane Asher had decided to take a trip to Africa, George Harrison and his wife Patti went to India and Ringo Starr and wife Maureen were visiting relatives in England. ‘I wanted to try a new life – maybe acting could be a new solution, a new adventure,’ Lennon said.
Towards the end of the film, Lennon’s character dies after being shot four times. Lennon initially refused to take part in the scene, revealing that he was haunted by fears of an unnatural death. He told Lester he was concerned about an ‘eerie prophecy’ which he said ‘may mean violent death for me later on’. His fears came true in 1980 when Mark Chapman shot him five times on the doorstep of his home in New York.
The film drew lukewarm reviews on its release but Lennon’s performance was praised. Lennon wrote one of The Beatles’ most famous songs, Strawberry Fields Forever, during breaks from filming, and that November the band reconvened to begin recording their masterpiece, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Despite Lennon’s hope that How I Won The War would lead to other roles, it was his first – and last – non-Beatles film.