Captive Military Audience - Part I - Military Trader/Vehicles

Captive Military Audience - Part I

POW films from the European Theater, ‘For you the war is over’ is often the beginning of the story
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One of the more popular sub-genres of World War II films remains the POW story. Perhaps this is because of man’s desire to be free, and probably because, unlike traditional prison films, the viewer can patriotically cheer for the prisoner. Instead of criminals and bad men, the imprisoned are soldiers who are doing their duty by trying to escape.

In Part I of our two-part feature on POW films, we look at the stories set in the European Theater of War, typically where the prisoners were Allied flyers and soldiers, where the focus was more often than not continuing the war against the Third Reich. In these films, the plot was just as often centered on the “escape,” complete with the requisite escape committees, daring plans and at times the dire consequences.

greatescape

The Great Escape (1963, Directed by John Sturges)

Action: ***

Authenticity: ****

Plot/Story: ****

Acting: ****

Directing: ****

Available on DVD

Arguably the very best of the bunch, thanks to stunning locations, a superb cast and more importantly the fact that it was based on actual events. Although a few facts were changed to aid in the marketing of the film—notably no American soldiers took part in the actual escape—The Great Escape remains one of the most accurate Hollywood depictions of life in a World War II POW camp. And while it could have been easy enough to make a more uplifting ending, this one even preserves the truth regarding the fate of 50 of the escapees.

stalag17

Stalag 17 (1953, Directed by Billy Wilder)

Action: **

Authenticity: ***

Plot/Story: ****

Acting: ***

Directing: ****

Available on DVD

One of the first true POW films, it is a bit dated and unfortunately far too often erroneously tied to the TV series “Hogan’s Heroes.” Despite this, the film offers an interesting look at the WWII, but also about the paranoia of early days of the Cold War. While the villains are the German guards, the main plot about a collaborator/informer in the ranks evokes the concerns of the 1950s as much as the wartime worries of POWs. William Holden, who won an Academy Award for his performance as the one loner and profiteer, stands out from otherwise fairly flat acting. To draw out a rather simple story, director Billy Wilder interjected moments of comic relief that are almost appalling at times, but this further demonstrates the mood of the captive men.

vonryan

Von Ryan’s Express (1965, Directed by Mark Robson)

Action: **

Authenticity: **

Plot/Story: ***

Acting: ***

Directing: ***

Available on DVD

Much like William Holden’s anti-hero in Stalag 17, Frank Sinatra plays an outsider, anti-hero, whose actions are hated by his fellow prisoners. This time around Sinatra is an American flyer (Joseph Ryan) shot down over Italy in 1943, and as a Colonel becomes the ranking officer in an Italian-controlled POW camp. Happy to sit out the war, Ryan soon comes to clash with British Major Finchman (Trevor Howard), whose men have attempted constant escapes.

The film goes off track after the POWs are loaded on a train headed for Germany, and after commandeering it—with the plan to make a run for Switzerland—the story breaks entirely from reality. And while Sinatra hardly did more than play himself, this is at least good escapist fun.

Escape from Athena

Escape to Athena (1979, Directed by George P. Cosmatos)

Action: ***

Authenticity: ***

Plot/Story: *

Acting: **

Directing: **

Available on Import DVD

Starring Roger Moore, David Niven, Telly Savalas, Richard Roundtree and Elliot Gould, Escape to Athena gets off to a reasonable start, but from there nothing good comes of it. Set in the Greek Aegean, Moore is an Austrian art dealer and commandant of a POW camp—yes Roger Moore plays a German officer and does so with an awful accent—who is as much a profiteer as soldier. The camp is on an ancient Greek ruin, and Niven and other prisoners, including Roundtree in the requisite token African-American role, are charged with recovering priceless antiquities for the Reich. Savalas is a Greek partisan and Gould is part of an entertainment troupe—along with Stefanie Powers. If this sounds like pure nonsense, it is—there is a mass breakout in the camp, liberation of the island from the SS and then a commando-style raid of a monastery to stop the launch of a German missile. The film’s saving grace is the use of very authentic looking equipment, and a stunning motorcycle chase through the island.

hartwar

Hart’s War (2002, Directed by Gregory Hoblit)

Action: ***

Authenticity: **

Plot/Story: **

Acting: **

Directing: **

Available on DVD/Blu-ray

Set after the Battle of the Bulge, staff officer Lt. Thomas W. Hart (Colin Farrell) is captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp, where hard-as-nails Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis) is fighting a personal war against the Nazis. He distrusts Hart, and the suspicions rise when two African-American flyers arrive at the camp. After one is killed, another American POW is also murdered and the film takes a heavy-handed approach when Tuskegee airman Lt. Lincoln A. Scott (Terrance Howard) is then put on trial for that murder! The film switches gears to a pseudo-courtroom drama that becomes confusing yet with a predictable outcome. This is a POW film that pulls at the heart strings but lacks any real heart.

mckenziebreak

The McKenzie Break (1970, Directed by Lamont Johnson)

Action: ***

Authenticity: ***

Plot/Story: ***

Acting: ***

Directing: ***

Available on DVD

This one offers an interesting twist on the usual POW films, and instead of being set in Germany is actually about captured German soldiers, sailors and pilots trying to break out of a camp in rural Scotland. The story adds an interesting twist, as it is about an escape plan; a plan that the British know about. British intelligence officer Captain Jack Connor (Brian Keith) and German U-Boat commander Kapitänleutnant Willi Schlüter (Helmut Griem) play a game of cat and mouse, and with an unexpected turn of events. The build-up to the breakout is reminiscent of The Great Escape with the interesting twist of seeing who are the good guys and who are the villains.

colditz

Colditz (2005, Directed by Stuart Orme)

Action: **

Authenticity: ***

Plot/Story: ***

Acting: ***

Directing: ***

Available on import DVD (Region 2)

This British-made-for-TV mini-series could have been a “Band of Brothers” type story about the exploits of one of Germany’s most infamous POW camps. Instead, it is too much a mismatched love story, with the typical love triangle and rivalry between two soldiers. The story moves slowly over the three hours, and despite the name of this drama, the camp scenes are really secondary. It is a worthwhile story overall, but don’t expect hardcore POW action. Likewise, some viewers may have a hard time seeing “Band of Brother’s” Damian Lewis in the role of the anti-hero Lt. Nicholas McGrade, but at least you get to hear his natural accent.

onethatgotaway

The One That Got Away (1957, Directed by Roy Ward Baker)

Action: **

Authenticity: ***

Plot/Story: ***

Acting: ****

Directing: ***

Available on DVD

Sometimes real life seems more fanciful than anything a screen writer could come up, and this is such a story. It is about the real life story of Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, a German pilot who was shot down during World War II. He was one of only two Germans to successfully escape from a POW camp and make it back to Germany. Although far from action-packed, this film offers his very personal story, while actor Hardy Krüger provides a very personable depiction of von Werra, who truly was someone who wanted to be larger than life.

captive_heart_UK1sht

The Captive Heart (1946, Directed by Basil Dearden)

Action: **

Authenticity: ***

Plot/Story: ***

Acting: ****

Directing: ****

Not Available on DVD

Arguably one of the earliest depictions of WWII POWs (although the 1944 made film The Seventh Cross did depict pre-war life in a concentration camp), The Captive Heart is pure melodrama of the best kind. While dated by today’s standards and made on a post-war shoestring budget, the film’s depictions of a POW camp is impressive, notably so because a real camp stood in for some of the location shots.

The story is set around Dunkirk where an escaped prisoner from a concentration camp (Michael Redgrave) assumes the identity of a dead British officer.

To protect this secret, Redgrave finds that he must correspond with the dead man’s estranged wife, and by offering hope to someone he is torn as to whether it is worth exposing the truth. Told through flashbacks, this film reminds viewers that the POW camp was, in fact, a prison.

amanescaped

A Man Escaped/ Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (1957, Directed by Robert Bresson)

Action: **

Authenticity: **

Plot/Story: ***

Acting: ****

Directing: ****

Available on DVD

One of the few foreign language POW films, this one is set in Lyon, France in 1943 and tells the story of Lt. Fontaine, played by then newcomer François Leterrier, a soldier desperate to escape. The exact reason for his solitary confinement is never revealed, but it isn’t entirely necessary.

The reasons for why Fontaine must escape are not important, merely that it is important enough to keep the viewer interested. The story takes an almost surreal turn when Fontaine is given a cellmate, and for a man desperate to escape but confined to deep loneliness it brings up the issues of trust and survival. 

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