Drama set in an Italian prisoner of war camp during World War 2, where a group of British soldiers find their plans for escape thwarted by a mysterious traitor in their midst.
- A Hidden Classic
It never ceases to amaze me the truly wonderful films that you find if you venture from the mainstream. This is one of the greatest finds I have come across in a while.
A classic cast of Richard Todd, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee, Vincent Ball and Dennis Price are holed up in a Prisoner of War camp in Italy. They struggle against a sadistic camp Capitano (Peter Arne), the impending threat of a German takeover of the camp, internal personal clashes and a traitor in their midst as they try to escape. It sounds like heavy going but with a tight, often witty script and magnificent performances this is simply rivetting viewing. Richard Todd and Richard Attenborough (both underrated actors) especially shine out for their performances.
And there is the bonus of seeing a frighteningly young and skinny Michael Caine in a bit part!
- Superior British war film.
Part of the novelty lies in its North Italian setting - we're so used to nefarious Nazis and brutal Japanese. Not that it makes much difference - the main villain, Capitano Benucci, is a Nazi-trained sadist, who imagines he's suavity incarnate with his sophisticated cigars, laidback walk, time goatie, and clipped, ironical speech. But the blanching sun makes a nice change, giving a parched, sandy feel, and the notorious stereotype of Italian incompetence makes the various plot points believable.
What makes this narrative absorbing is not the usual will-they-or-won't-they escape plot, but a kind of detective story. No matter how ingenious the efforts of the escape committee - and there is a brilliant one here involving sewers, light-switches, misplaced cigarettes and rugby posts- there is always the same welcoming committee of armed fascists ready to mow them down. It's clear there's an informer, but who?
The obvious culprit is a shifty-looking Greek. This is the film's first daring piece of iconoclasm. There is a lot of anti-Italian racism throughout, but that can be attributed to understandable wartime emotionalism, where contempt for what Fascism stands for is expressed in xenophobia. But the Greek's only obvious credentials for being an informer is the fact of being a Greek, a little small, sweaty, oily, you know, naturally sneaky. When his name is called at roll-call, a wit hurls a dead rat at the officer; we remember Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda that used similar analogies.
This is a strangely unideological war these men are fighting - there is no rhetoric about liberty and democracy; this is a prison film in which the criminals, all professionals, want to escape. Everything centres on the job in hand, with loyalty vouchsafed for anyone who agrees. This lack of sentimentality is refreshing an a genre stuffed with secular piety.
Even better is the working of the theatrical metaphors. The brilliant opening scene features a prisoner disguised as the commandant - their fatal meeting creates a mirror effect that echoes in the following narrative about, not only duplicity, but also people who don't seem to be what they are, including old fops who turn out to be very brave men. Of course, this is a situation where the Law are murderous criminals, and the prisoners are democratic saviours, ambiguous enough in itself. It creates a world where you don't know who to trust, especially dangerous in a situation where loyalty and trust need to be givens. This idea of acting and pretending (extending to the Capitano) culminates in the attempted escape during 'Hamlet', with the immortal Dennis Price in a mop wig as the Prince. It's a shame they couldn't have picked a more apposite play - King Lear, perhaps? - or worked it in better, with a play-within-a-play scene, for instance, to reveal the murderer. But that would have been silly, contrived, arty, and no British war film would ever be that. Michael Wilding is a bizarre sight in this testosterone heavy atmosphere; even more surprising is how excellent he is with his old queen patter and reserves of steel.
Richard Todd .... Lt. Col. David Baird
Bernard Lee .... Lt. Col. Huxley
Michael Wilding .... Maj. Charles Marquand
Richard Attenborough .... Capt. Bunter Phillips
Dennis Price .... Capt. Rupert Callander
Donald Houston .... Capt. Roger Byford
William Franklyn .... Capt. Tony Long
Peter Arne .... Capt. Benucci
rest of cast listed alphabetically
Terence Alexander .... Lt. Gibbs
Eric Lander .... Lt. Tim O'Brien
Cyril Shaps .... Lt. Cyriakos Coutoules
Harold Siddons .... Capt. 'Tag' Burchinall
Ian Whittaker .... 2nd Lt. Betts-Hanger
Also Known As:
Breakout (1959/II) (USA)
Runtime: 115 min
Color: Black and White