The Colditz Story (1955)

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Escaping’s verboten, isn’t it? Allied prisoners of war who have tried to escape from other POW camps in Germany are sent of Oflag IV-C Colditz, a castle in Saxony which is the most secure holding place for the repeat offenders. At first, the different nationalities try to initiate their own independent escape plans, but these cause friction and conflict with the French tunnel collapsing on the British one and every escape being stopped by the Germans. Eventually, Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman), the Senior British Officer, steps in and suggests co-operation between the different contingents via the appointment of a number of Escape Officers:  Pat Reid (John Mills) represents the British. An agreement is reached and co-ordinated escape plans are set in motion. But soon, these too fail via early detection by the German guards. Eventually, a spy is discovered amongst the Polish captives and, after his removal, escape plans run more smoothly.  The prisoners of Colditz are high-spirited and eager to needle the Germans. There are many escape attempts made, both planned and opportune. For example, prisoners tunnel underground, leapfrog over fences during physical training, hide in mattresses being taken out of the camp. Some of these escapes are successful, some are not. The plans are always scuppered by the exit route from the camp and what to do to make it out of Germany. Mac McGill (Christopher Rhodes) comes up with a well thought out plan to escape disguised as German officers but his excessive height will compromise him and his fellow escapees. He is devastated but accepts the Colonel’s judgement. On the eve of the escape, he makes a reckless attempt to scale a wire fence during daylight and is shot dead by German guards.  Reid is at confused as to why Mac would do such a thing right before they can carry out their plan but the escape goes ahead…  This is a classic 1950s WW2 actioner, based closely on what actually happened. The efficient screenplay by director Guy Hamilton, Ivan Foxwell and William Douglas-Holme is adapted from Pat Reid’s autobiographical book. They even stage a version of an old Flanagan and Allen routine during the crucial escape, with Ian Carmichael and Richard Wattis doing the double act while the more important work goes on beneath the proscenium. Mills is the reliable Englishman while Portman is the troublesome snob – at first. Characterisation is deftly wrought in a typically broad selection of types and not merely among the British:  this is the Allied war effort in microcosm, with violence kept to a minimum and the end credits filling in the historical facts – Airey Neave was the first to break out from this supposedly impregnable fortress in 1942 but he wasn’t the last.  It’s never as exciting as you’d like but nonetheless it’s pretty fine escapist entertainment!

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Stalag 17 (1953)

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How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns? 1944.  It’s the longest night of the year in a German POW camp housing American airmen.  Two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, try to escape the compound using a tunnel but are quickly discovered and shot dead. Among the men remaining in Barracks 4, suspicion grows that one of their own is a spy for the Germans. All eyes fall on cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who everybody knows frequently makes black market exchanges with the German guards for small luxuries. To protect himself from a mob of his enraged fellow inmates, Sgt. Sefton resolves to find the true traitor within their midst… Director Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted the autobiographical Broadway hit by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trczinski, a canny blend of comedy and drama which asks serious questions of its players yet taints the seriousness with jokes and the high jinks with irony. Holden is superb as the entrepreneur whose go-getting attitude would be admired back home but in a POW camp it’s a different story. The men are stratified by their ethnicity and class. Rob Strauss and Harvey Lembeck repeat their stage roles as Animal and Harry, and are highly entertaining comic relief, with Don Taylor, Neville Brand and Peter Graves making up the principal roles. The Nazis are led by Otto Preminger’s rather hammily amusing Colonel von Scherbach which casts the enemy as something of a Greek chorus to the loyalties being figured out by the Americans under deadly pressure. Sefton is a model for the Scrounger played by James Garner in The Great Escape while the whole provides a template not just for the legendary Sergeant Bilko but Hogan’s Heroes on TV. Holden got a deserved Academy Award:  he stands out, yes, but in the right way. He’s not exactly Bogie in Casablanca but it helps to think of him in that shadow even if he felt he didn’t deserve recognition and many thought he should have had it for his previous work with Wilder – Sunset Blvd. He’s just swell in a film that is shrewd, bittersweet, hilarious, human and true.

The Wooden Horse (1950)

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Eric Williams’ true story of an escape by British POWs from Stalag Luft III (a different compound from the one in The Great Escape) receives a solid treatment here by documentary maker Jack Lee from Williams’ own screenplay. It was the first POW movie in a series made throughout the Fifties and stars Leo Genn (a lawyer fresh from the Nuremberg Trials), Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson whose scheme involves a wooden vaulting horse designed to conceal the digging of a tunnel and then to transport them out of the camp and into neutral territory in order to make for Sweden. The real tension only happens outside when they try to avoid being reported to the Nazis by their hotelier and have to prove themselves to the Resistance. This was Steel’s breakout role and Genn is an engaging presence but there are no real thrills here and the director admitted he spent too long shooting some scenes and then had to make up for lost time on a very low budget.

Escape to Victory (1981)

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Aka Victory. The talented and peripatetic director John Huston, a Nazi POW camp and a couple of dozen great footballers:  what more do you want?! It’s WW2 and  Allied soldiers are desperate to get out of their shackles when the prospect of an exhibition match against the Germans looms with the approval of Commandant Max Von Sydow. Michael Caine is the English Captain (a West Ham player) lured into the propaganda stunt with Sylvester Stallone, US Army Captain enlisted in the Canadian Army, allowed in as the team trainer to be with the potential escapees. But Caine doesn’t want his team killed and butts head with his opposite number so Stallone escapes and enlists the aid of the Resistance but is placed in solitary upon his necessary return …  The story was conjured from Zoltan Fabri’s novel Two Half Times in Hell by Yabo Yablonsky, Djordje Milicevic and Jeff Maguire, with a screenplay by Yablonsky and Evan Jones. Great if you want to see Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, Pele and half of Ipswich Town (including Kevin O’Callaghan) in action, but it ain’t no Great Escape. Daft!

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Someone asked me why I hadn’t enjoyed the recent POW movie Unbroken and I said that after 2 hours I still knew absolutely nothing about the protagonist or any of his imprisoned confreres. I didn’t even know why he ran despite it being based on an athlete’s memoir. For me that represented a huge failure in the writing (by the Coen Bros.)  No such problem here which is the skeleton plot for all such films. The British war movie was at its zenith in the 1950s and the writing here is so precise, the casting so meticulous, you don’t even have to hear anyone speak a line of dialogue before you know exactly who these men are, what they are capable of,  what and who they represent in a somewhat fictional take on the building of the Burma-Siam railway. James Donald, Andre Morell, Geoffrey Horne, Peter Williams. We know these men. The adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel about prisoners in a WW2 Japanese camp by blacklisted Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson was credited to Boulle and he got the Academy Award for something he didn’t do. They were eventually awarded posthumously. British critics still look at this and hate it because it was made by David Lean (financed and produced by Sam Spiegel) and it seemed to indicate a permanent change to his filmmaking approach, that of international tourism. He made pretty pictures, that’s for sure, but they were meaningful and he was highly involved in their development from all perspectives, not merely visual (as though that were a crime in a visual medium) but also the screenplay, despite never taking a writing credit. The setting in Burma (it was shot in Ceylon) was demanding and the casting was crucial to satisfy an international audience. William Holden was a brilliant choice – look at his previous roles, particularly in Stalag 17 – and his physicality, sex appeal and a convincing ability as a bit of a sly piece of work made him a perfect if brave and reliable reprobate., a complex action hero of questionable loyalties. Guinness is the shortsighted Brit Colonel Nicholson who takes seriously issues of honour, legality and pride, a model of the officer and gentleman (Holden is nothing of the sort as one of his mates tells him) opposite the Jap camp commander played by Sessue Hayakawa whose own viciousness barely conceals his incomprehension at the stubborn morality of his opposite number. Holden escapes, Guinness wants to build a bridge of military importance to the Japs and Jack Hawkins blackmails Holden into blowing it up. It’s such an interesting play on character and belief and the deranged survival instincts of people under murderous tyranny. How could anyone not like this?! I first saw this aged 9 and like every other kid in my class was whistling Colonel Bogey on the way home from school the next day. That was before I learned what the Japs did to my great uncle in one of their camps (and he was one of the very few in his regiment to have survived) and what he experienced and witnessed – that is another story but one that people should not forget. A fabulously suspenseful drama and the tension never lets up. This is brilliant.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

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This is one of the greats. Why? It’s about more than its ostensible subject matter, French officers making repeated attempts at escape from their German captors in WW1. Pilots Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio and Pierre Fresnay are taken to a schloss run by commandant Erich Von Stroheim. He and Fresnay are aristocrats and have a mutual understanding of duty and decency. When Fresnay allows his working class colleagues escape, he has to be shot and Von Stroheim has to do it. It’s understood. They stay with a German woman and leave her too, understanding that everything is an illusion. Renoir co-wrote this with Charles Spaak. The title came from a book by economist Norman Angell who theorised about the futility of war in Europe due to common economic interests:  how timely! Featuring Ms Dita Parlo, so beloved of Madonna, to whom she bears a superficial resemblance. To be enjoyed and studied endlessly.

 

 

The Captive Heart (1946)

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Basil Dearden’s contribution to British cinema was immense. In a very real sense he was its conscience – one thinks of his later films with producer Michael Relph, like Sapphire and Victim for their treatment of race relations and homosexuality. This earnest attempt was the first to try to explain POW camps to a British audience. It falls prey to the stereotyping that is across most British films of the time in terms of class and caricature. However Michael Redgrave does his best as a Czech-born inmate who speaks perfect English and escapes from a concentration camp to find himself detained as a POW with British officers, one of whose identities he adopts and then has to write letters home to the man’s wife to keep up the pretence. Then he goes to England … a worthy film that is very much of its time, with the limitations that that implies. The original story by Patrick Kirwan was adapted by Angus Macphail and Guy Morgan. Part of the ongoing fascination is to see Redgrave opposite his wife Rachel Kempson, the mother of their three extraordinary children. And the subject of post-war life was further explored by Dearden in Frieda. Dearden died 45 years ago this week following a car crash near Heathrow Airport. The news that he expired in Hillingdon Hospital will come as no surprise to anyone who ever had the misfortune to enter that hellhole of a premises.

The Password is Courage (1962)

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Today is Dirk Bogarde Day at Mondo Movies (well, it’s Saturday, but to be honest it could be any day of the week such is my admiration for this Great British actor.) This was in the period when he was negotiating a different way through his problematic stardom and this is a pretty straightforward if underrated WW2 POW escape story based on the story of Sgt Major Charles Coward.  He spent years planning and making his way out of German captivity. There are some funny moments and the disconcerting sight of a Carry On ensemble actor jars slightly. Writer-director Andrew Stone (working since the 20s) manages the tone well in the face of the problematic scenario. Sometimes we forget that Germans in the main got on with their lives, to some extent, so seeing Bogarde mingling with the hoi polloi on the streets is disconcerting. (Let’s face it, the Germans came out of the war pretty bloody well, didn’t they?!) Onward.