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.

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The Planter’s Wife (1952)

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Aka Outpost in Malaya. Colonial pictures can present problems nowadays for the kind of people who wouldn’t dream of exiting their own parish for a pint of milk. But if you know anyone who settled anywhere more than a day’s travel away, you’ll know it’s never easy and it’s often done for reasons that are simply not relevant these days:  duty, opportunity, adventure, a desire for the exotic. Not a gap year, more a life choice. This was originally going to be called White Blood (a reference to liquid rubber) but that title was rejected by the Colonial Office (it was a thing – until 1966) on the basis that it could incite racial problems. It’s not often we see one of these stories set in the Malay peninsula and this is set in the Emergency that started in 1948 between the Commonwealth forces and the terrorist wing of the local Communist Party. Claudette Colbert and Jack Hawkins are under pressure with the local bandits threatening their livelihood – and lives – as rubber planters. Parents to a small boy, Mike (Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame), it’s time for him to go back to England to boarding school and Colbert thinks she’ll go with him and leave her husband for good. A local policeman (Anthony Steel) urges her not to bring Hawkins with her or her marriage will really be dead in the water. They give a sympathetic Malay a lift to town and he’s murdered after the Brits arm him;  then the plantation comes under sustained attack, Colbert uses a gun and the tension is non-stop until a lot of people are killed as the family are under siege. A neighbour/rival reluctantly calls for help but it takes a long time to come … A surprisingly violent and engrossing outing with some very exciting scenes, one of the best involving a cobra and Mr Mangles, Mike’s mongoose;  and Colbert using a Bren gun. (A sight I never thought I’d see. She was delighted to get the opportunity, and allegedly became very useful with small arms.) Based on the novel by Sidney Charles George which was adapted by Guy Elmes and Peter Proud and directed by Ken Annakin. It’s well edited by Alfred Roome and the cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth camouflages the fact that it was most of it was made at Pinewood with a second unit shooting in Malaya, Malacca, Singapore and Ceylon. Bill Travers and Don Sharp, who would become a noted writer and director, have uncredited roles as soldiers.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

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The famous (blacklisted) screenwriter Walter Bernstein once said that the success or failure of a film could be determined by its premise. Paul Brickhill’s true account of hundreds of Commonwealth POWs doing their darnedest to escape from Stalag Luft III by a tunnel made for a sentimental classic that still thrills and excites no matter how many times you watch it. Almost twenty years after hostilities had ceased there was no let-up in war films and everyone knew what side they were on. James Clavell and WR Burnett adapted the book. Burnett had adapted Gunga Din which was shot as Sergeants 3 by director John Sturges a couple of years earlier.  He was good at handling action and The Magnificent Seven also demonstrated his capacity to bring an ensemble together in a balanced way albeit in a fashion that flattered the egos of the stars. A surprising cast was assembled and boy did they deliver the goods – even James Coburn, utterly miscast as an Aussie, entertains. Amongst their number James Garner does a William Holden as the Scrounger, whose friendship with the Forger (Donald Pleasance) gives them both a taste of freedom, Richard Attenborough is terrific as steadfast Roger Bushell (a variant on Alec Guinness’ turn in Bridge on the River Kwai),  Gordon Jackson has the unfortunate task of replying to the Nazis at the station, and David McCallum is Ashley-Pitt or Dispersal, the man with the blond pageboy cut who falls at the last hurdle.  It falls to James Donald to pass on the bad news.  It is however Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts, the Cooler King, who cemented his place in film history bouncing off the barbed wire fence on that motorbike. Cool is the word. To quote Susie Hinton, The Motorcycle Boy Reigns! Simply a classic.