Classic Film Review: Brit POWs keep calm and carry on, “The Colditz Story” (1955)

Don’t know how I missed catching “The Colditz Story” on this or that cable channel over the years. I saw many of its 1950s Brit-film WWII classics — “The Dam Busters,””Dunkirk,” “Bridge on the River Kwai” — but never the best British example of the POW dramedy, a genre most famous for “Stalag 17” and “The Great Escape.”

Perhaps after seeing PBS and History Channel documentaries on the “escape proof” German camp at Colditz Castle, I never felt the need.

Like WWII movies about the Pacific conflict from the same period, one can feel a certain softening of attitudes towards the Hated “Hun” and the murderous “Jap” in films made after the two former adversaries morphed into Cold War allies. The evolution of the prison escape/POW film is an exemplar of that.

Starting with “Stalag 17” (1953) and climaxing with “The Great Escape” (1963), the movies about this deathly serious business of breaking out of machine-gun-guarded prison of war camps became somewhat, well, campy. There are traitors and shootings and cold and privation. But the films also feature a “Jolly good sport, wot?” jauntiness.

There was even a hint of that in the brutally serious “Bridge on the River Kwai,” although David Lean’s 1957 masterpiece reflects Europe and America’s testier, racially-charged attitude towards the (even more racist) Asian adversary.

The music of “The Great Escape” is a bouncy little martial ditty fit for a film about kids playing hide and seek…with guns. It’s no wonder that epic, a “true story” and a bloody but often lighthearted blockbuster, inspired the indefensible Nazi-normalizing cartoon “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV.

By contrast, the Francis Chagrin score of “Colditz” is alarming, its opening bars promising a dire thriller that the movie only rarely is.

“Escape” had the jauntier tune and a more blunt depiction of violence. “Colditz” had a strident score and a jocular, sporting tone with actual comedy included in the account, provided by “Carry On” comics Ian Carmichael and Richard Wattis, playing the “stars” of the camp revue at Olfag IV-C.

That was the official name (Oflag is a shortening of Offizierslager “officer’s camp”) of Colditz. It was set aside for officers of the British, Polish, Dutch and French armed forces who repeatedly attempted escapes at their other camps.

That’s how Pat Reid (John Mills), Harry Tyler (Lionel Jeffries) and others under the command of Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman) ended up there.

Although they, the Poles who preceded them there (Guido Lorraine plays one), the Dutch (the great character actor Theodore Bikel is most prominent) and French (Eugene Deckers) are told “Zere IZZ no ESCAPE” from Colditz by the Kommandant (Frederick Valk) and warned of what awaits them if and when they’re caught, they crack on with it.

“Let me repeat this once more. The sole reward for attempting to escape from Colditz will be death!

The initial problems seem to be a senior officer, Col. Richmond, indifferent to the escape mania and seemingly passive, taking the German’s words at face value. And then there’s the lack of organization. The four groups of prisoners are forever screwing up each other’s attempts with their own. Nobody trusts or respects anybody else.

“This blasted Frenchman makes Colditz look about as dangerous as a child’s playground,” Reid complains.

That’s a complaint that suits the film a tad too much, as well. The Germans’ lax security means clever escapers will try hiding under shrubbery in the outside-the-walls soccer pitch reserved for prisoners’ use, gymnastically leap-frogging over a fence, hammering out all manner of woodwork in a workshop where they build sets for their next “Theatre Colditz” show to build tunnels and fake German uniforms to trick apparently near-sighted guards at every turn.

It’s all a bit much, but aside from the occasional shooting, future Bond director Guy Hamilton keeps it light and fun.

The light tone doesn’t so much disrespect the dire straits those imprisoned there struggled through as discount the difficulty of what they accomplished. Time and again, a funny fake mustache (sported by Richmond), a feigned Nazi salute to a guard while in a quite-convincing Wehrmacht uniform or an ingenious tunnel or rope ladder seems on the verge of success.

And when it isn’t, often as not, there’s a “Now now you naughty boys” reprimand from the Kommandant or his second (vulpine veteran character player Anton Diffring).”Solitary” is nothing of the sort, and it’s even where one semi-successful attempt is carried out.

That lowers the stakes in a movie that has fine moments of suspense somewhat undercut by the idea of “Oh well, better luck next time” for most of the failures.

“Colditz,” which became a British TV series in the ’70s, also feels feels incomplete, the ending truncated — cut-off — at the 94 minute mark. If you’ve read or seen anything about this gathering of escape artists, it’s that their getaways got to insanely elaborate levels. One even built a glider.

Much of that is left out, here.

But the players are all on top of their game, with fuming Mills, stoic Portman (of “The 49th Parallel”), Bikel and the comics Carmichael and Wattis standing out.

Hamilton (“Goldfinger,” “Live and Let Die”) and director of photography Gordon Dines (“The Third Key”) make great use of the actual castle and present a stark story with silly touches in silky black and white.

The best way to approach it is as a proof-of-concept picture for the later, bigger budget, all-star cast “Great Escape.” Movies like “Colditz” and “Stalag 17” proved that audiences, after hating and fearing and mourning loved ones lost to their recent WWII adversaries, were finally open to see the ridiculous, as well as the sad and horrific.

Rating: approved, violence

Cast: John Mills, Eric Portman, Lionel Jeffries, Anton Diffring, Ian Carmichael, Richard Wattis, Frederick Valk and Theodore Bikel.

Credits: Directed by Guy Hamilton, scripted by Ivan Foxwell and Guy Hamilton, based on the book by P.R. Reid. A Film Movement release, also on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:34

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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