Ever since there has been war, there have been prisoners of war. In times gone by, they might have been sold into slavery, recruited into the winning side, or just killed out of hand. As societies became more civilised, they began to treat prisoners with more care, putting them in camps under guard, and providing them with the basics required to stay alive.
Not all nations treated prisoners equally. Many were made to work, often in appalling conditions, treated little better than the slaves of old. Some were starved, worked until they died, or executed for the smallest infringement of the rules. Food was usually of a poor quality, and medical care was generally lacking too. In some countries POWs were given relative freedoms, allowed to work on the land, and to associate with the local communities. In others, their existence was little more than being locked up for years on end, enduring endless hours of tedium. Sometimes they tried to escape, and on many occasions, with some success.
The film industry became interested in their situations, and soon caught on to the possibility of a new genre, the Prisoner of War film. In this article, I will look at some of the many that have been made, avoiding such well-known classics as The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), The Colditz Story (1955), The Deer Hunter (1978), and The Great Escape (1963). I am also leaving out La Grande Illusion, (1937) which I have previously covered in an article here.
Most of us associate a classic POW film with the Second World War. Fought in many areas of the world, against a variety of enemies, it proved to be fertile ground for the makers of these films. But earlier wars also had their prison camps, and equally sad or stirring tales to tell.
BE WARNED: SPOILERS AHEAD!
This started life as a TV film and later transferred to DVD, where it received generally good reviews. Produced by John Frankenheimer and starring Frederic Forrest, it looks at the situation of Union captives in a Confederate prison during the American Civil War.
After the battle of Cold Harbor, in 1864, a group of Union soldiers find themselves imprisoned in Camp Sumter, near Andersonville. They soon discover that conditions in the camp are appalling, with little food, and pitiful shelters to live in. Worse still, the camp is divided, with a group of prisoners stealing from their own comrades, and organising a violent regime.
The prisoners attempt to dig an escape tunnel, but are betrayed by another soldier seeking favours from the guards. With illness and disease rife, and many suffering from malnutrition, they decide to end the rule of the prisoners seeking to run things in the camp and a fierce riot breaks out. They later try to get the commander, Captain Wirtz, to allow a trial of those responsible. He agrees, and the six ringleaders are hanged for their crimes. But for the others, the situation continues to deteriorate, and many more die from disease or hunger, before they are told that they will be exchanged for Confederate prisoners.
This film is based on actual events, and portrays them with accuracy and attention to detail. In reality, many prisoners on both sides suffered badly in that war, but this was especially true of those held in Confederate prisons as the rebels were not in a position to afford to care for them properly.
The Wooden Horse (1950)
Only five years after the war ended, this British film also depicted a true story, starring some well-known British actors including Leo Genn, David Tomlinson, and Anthony Steel, alongside a cast comprised mainly of amateurs.
Shot with little money and in a realistic style, it tells of the escape plot contrived by allied prisoners held at the air force prison camp, Stalag Luft III. Determined to get out, a group of prisoners have the ingenious idea of using a vaulting horse to cover their efforts to dig a tunnel out of the camp. If this did not happen to be a true story, it would be incredulous in the extreme. Every day, a wooden vaulting horse is carried into the exercise area, in the main part of the camp. A man is concealed inside, ready to dig, hidden by the gym equipment as endless teams of fellow prisoners jump over it. When it is time to take the horse back, the man reruns to his hiding place inside, covering his tunnel entrance with wooden boards and dry earth. As the tunnel develops, two men hide inside, and the digging continues in the same fashion.
When the agreed day arrives, one prisoner stays in the tunnel, and two more are carried under the horse to join him.
The three men actually escape, unnoticed at first, and manage to travel all the way to Sweden.
Many of these ‘stiff upper lip’ British POW films were made, including Albert R.N. (1953), The Password is Courage (1962), and Reach For The Sky (1956).
The McKenzie Break (1970)
Few films have been made about the treatment of enemy prisoners by the British during World War Two. I can only think of one, and this is it. The film stars American actor Brian Keith (playing a British Army Captain), the well-known German actor Helmut Griem, and British regulars Ian Hendry and Jack Watson.
This fictional tale depicts an uprising by German prisoners held in a remote camp in Scotland, and the apparent inability of the British guards to control them.
After a series of minor disturbances, it soon becomes apparent that the camp commandant Major Perry (Hendry) does not have the strength to stand up to the vociferous and brave German senior officer, Schluter. (Griem)
Captain Connor (Keith) is sent in to investigate, and to try to restore order. He soon suspects that all these antics by the prisoners are merely a cover to hide the fact that they are digging an escape tunnel. He also discovers that they have been sending coded signals to nearby U-boats, trying to arrange to be collected once they escape. Connor is a very different man to Perry and Schluter fears that he will soon gain control. He stages the tunnel escape early, but they are discovered before they can reach the waiting U-boat.
This is an unusual subject, and handled well, with realism replacing sensationalism, and a setting that always feels authentic. The solid cast members act without show, and are all convincing.
King Rat (1965)
Prisoners held captive by the Japanese generally received brutal treatment. Random executions, starvation, and solitary confinement were routine punishments. Many films have been made about those POW in the hands of the Japanese, but this is one of the more unusual examples.
Based on the book by James Clavell, with screenplay and direction by Bryan Forbes, the film stars George Segal in the lead, together with British actors John Mills, Tom Courtenay, and James Fox. The setting is a run-down camp close to Singapore. Segal is near-perfect as Corporal King, one of the few American captives and the ‘King Rat’ of the title.
King and his cronies run the black market. They can get almost anything, at a price, and have no scruples about dealing with corrupt Japanese guards to do it. Anything seems to be fair game, even cheating the other prisoners out of their food rations, or conning them out of goods in crooked card games. King is despised by the snobbish British officers, and most of the Australians too. He even breeds rats to sell as a food supplement, the project that earns him his nickname.
But he has another side. Obtaining much-needed medicines and drugs, but not letting on where they come from, we see that Corporal King may not be as bad as he might seem.
Segal steals every scene, with his snappy performance as the apparently guiltless King. The stiff British officers are shown not to be as white as they paint themselves, and it becomes harder to know who to trust. An overlooked yet excellent film, with a fine cast.
The Railway Man (2013)
A much more modern take on the plight of British prisoners captured during the fall of Singapore, and made to toil on the Burma Railway by the Japanese. This is an adaptation of a book, the true story of Eric Lomax, and the suffering he endured as a POW.
The cast can only be described as flawless, with Colin Firth as Lomax in modern times, ably countered by Jeremy Irvine, playing the same character as a younger man. A quiet and intense Nicole Kidman convinces as the woman he marries in middle age. And Stellan Skarsgard is reliable as ever, as the friend Lomax knows from the camp, still alive after the war.
This film has a central theme of post-traumatic stress, as the older Lomax is unable to come to terms with life after the war. He travels the country on trains, collecting railway memorabilia. When he meets Patricia Wallace (Kidman) on one such jaunt, he decides that he loves her and they marry soon after.
However, he is unable to enjoy any happiness in his relationship and makes life difficult for his new wife. Troubled by vivid dreams and flashbacks, consumed by the desire for revenge, he is unable to live a settled existence, or discuss his reasons with the patient Patricia. Much of this film is told in flashback, with the later settings interposed seamlessly. It does not shy away from the violence or depiction of the brutal tortures inflicted on the prisoners by the callous Japanese guards and secret police. I was very impressed with this film. It works at both levels, with the more modern story just as effective as the wartime horrors.
When Lomax discovers that his chief torturer is still alive and acting as a guide at the museum in Burma, he decides to go back and confront him. In very powerful scenes, convincingly acted by Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada as the surviving Japanese interrogator, we see revenge turn into redemption.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
The war in Vietnam has given us many films, including the POW film mentioned in the introduction. Many prisoners held captive by the North Vietnamese remained in that country for years, suffering indoctrination and humiliation as well as physical torture.
Written and directed by Werner Herzog, this film also tells a true story, that of US pilot Lt. Dengler, shot down over Laos, in 1966. Christian Bale stars as Dengler, in a performance that convinces both emotionally and physically.
Dengler is captured by the Pathet Lao Communist guerillas. He is offered the chance for good treatment if he signs a paper condemning the US involvement in south-east Asia. When he refuses, he is brutally beaten, and sent to a POW camp where he meets fellow prisoners who have been kept there for some years already. After finding out that he and the rest of the inmates are going to be killed by the guards, Dengler stages an audacious escape, taking a rifle and killing some of his captors. He flees accompanied by a fellow soldier (Steve Zahn) trekking through jungle, then navigating a river crossing on a rudimentary raft. When they lose the raft over a waterfall, they are captured by local people and though Dengler escapes, Martin is killed. After managing to survive alone in the forbidding jungle for a few more days, Dengler is eventually spotted by a US helicopter and rescued.
Once again, a story that seems so implausible, if it was not for the fact that it actually happened.
Rescue Dawn was filmed in Thailand, in harsh and realistic conditions. Bale and other cast members had to lose a great deal of weight before filming, and this is apparent in the convincing scenes of hardship and starvation. An exciting, if somewhat gruelling film, that manages to keep up a good pace and enthral viewers who might well already know the outcome.
So, six choices from a well-filled genre. I hope that you find something new to discover, or are inspired to re-visit an old favourite. If you are not that familiar with POW films, as well as those already mentioned, you might be interested to explore some of these classic films.
Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)
Stalag 17 (1953)
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)
To End All Wars (2001)
The One That Got Away (1957)