I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go! As this post went on a bit I’ve split it in two and I’ll post Part 2 next week.
The Great Escape
The Great Escape was based on an actual event, a real life mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp in WWII. The film though wasn’t completely true to life, in fact I don’t think any American POWs were in the camp although Steve McQueen and James Garner played major roles. I also don’t think that any escaping POW’s tried to escape Germany on a motorcycle but hey, The Great Escape is one of those easy-going feel-good action-adventure films that is one of the most well-loved films ever made. For many years it was a staple of UK Christmas TV viewing and whether it is completely factual or not it is a great film. Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson and many others play the British officers. Attenborough plays Roger Bartlett who has just been released by the Gestapo after being recaptured and interrogated in relation to another escape attempt. He now plans a mass escape from the camp and organises the digging of tunnels, fake identity papers, maps and clothing. After the escape fifty officers were executed by the Nazis although of course, Steve McQueen lived to fight another day.
The Colditz Story
The Colditz Story is another prisoner of war escape film also based on a true story. In WWII the Germans rounded up a bunch of the most prolific escapers and put them all together in an escape proof castle named Colditz. John Mills plays a British officer who is tasked with co ordinating escapes with various other groups of captives, French, Polish, Dutch and various others as previous escape attempts were failing due to a sort of free for all escaping culture. Various escaping officers are elected and the prisoners work together towards breaking out from the castle. Mills eventually escapes by using an idea suggested by a fellow soldier. It’s a simple idea involving dressing up as German officers. Not very original you might think but the officers plan to be leaving the Officers’ club which they hope will make them appear more natural. The chief British officer decides the plan is doomed to failure as the man who thought of it was a very tall officer who he thinks would be immediately recognised by the camp guards. I won’t tell you what happens but Colditz is a great British picture and well worth watching.
The Wooden Horse.
The Wooden Horse is similar to the two films above. It is based on a book which in turn was a true story, actually written by one of the escapees from a WWII prisoner of war camp. In fact, if I remember rightly, the escape was from the same camp as the Great Escape Stalag Luft III. One of the big problems of digging a tunnel in a POW camp was the distance that needed to be covered. There was quite a distance from the camp huts to the perimeter, then there was an area of no mans land before the outside world. Two escapers, both captured airmen, hit on an idea. They decide to make a vaulting horse and lead it out close to the camp fence. Inside are concealed two men who dig a tunnel while their comrades exercised above. This meant that only a relatively short tunnel was required. The film covers all the aspects of camp life, the boredom, the petty arguments with fellow prisoners and the eventual escape. The film stars Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson as the escapees.
The Cruel Sea
It’s time to move on from POW camps and escaping and to take a look at the war at sea. The Cruel Sea is a classic WWII film based on the book by Nicholas Monsarrat. Jack Hawkins is the commander of the escort vessel Compass Rose. The film follows the story of the ship from its handover in the shipyard to the navy all the way through to its final demise at sea. The crew are new to naval warfare but bind together through various incidents at sea guarding convoys in the north Atlantic. The outstanding cast are all stalwarts of 1940s and 50s British cinema, names like Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker and Virginia McKenna.
The Compass Rose is eventually sunk by a torpedo and as the survivors struggle to stay alive in the cold Atlantic, many succumb to their injuries. As they drift in the oily water the soundtrack replays echos of their recent dialogue, a marriage proposal hangs in the air over the groom who will never wed and a petty argument haunts the body of an unhappily married officer. Happily, some survive till daylight when a destroyer returns to rescue them. The film continues with the next vessel Jack Hawkins is charged with commanding until the war ends. Colditz and the Great Escape are pretty light hearted films compared to this one which tends to be grittier and more realistic in its portrayal of the war.
Sink The Bismarck
Continuing with the war at sea, this film follows the hunt for the battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy again in WWII. It focuses on the Admiralty’s control centre as they attempt to track down the German battleship before it wreaks further havoc with the convoys that brought vital supplies to Britain. Kenneth Moore plays captain Shepard, the chief of operations, as he and his team attempt to find the Bismarck so British destroyers can attack and destroy the enemy. The film is perhaps a little different to other war films in that a great deal of the action focusses on the Admiralty control room showing the work of the unsung back room experts as they collate information and sightings and relay it to the ships under their command.
Don’t forget to check back next week for part 2 of this post.
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