WWII Film Guide: Prisoners of War - The Part-Time Critic

Friday, July 16, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Prisoners of War

 

*This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction


Overview:
Pound for pound, there's likely no better WWII film category with as much quality per entry as this one. It's a strange sub-category, as it isn't directly about action or fighting per se; in fact it's about soldiers being taken away from direct action and are left to try and fight the war in their own ways, fight boredom, fight for hope, and in some circumstances fight for their own survival.

War films always struggle to balance the exciting/romantic aspects of combat with the sobering realities of war and this conflict is still evident in POW films. If you watch just the most famous films in this category, you'd arguably believe being in a camp was like being in a heist film – with guards who aren't very bright and security features being present to make escaping a fun game, sometimes fatal, but mostly all in jolly good fun. You'll find that while I think those are good films, the BEST POW films embrace the sobering realities of POW camps in the stories they tell.

There are a lot of natural ethical questions that arise with the idea of prisoners in war. To house, feed, and guard thousands of prisoners costs a lot of money, takes a lot of manpower, and uses a lot of resources. In the middle of an existential total war, these kinds of considerations become greatly taxed and strained. Do states have a responsibility to treat prisoners humanely? According to the Geneva convention they do, but why bother with a Geneva convention when millions of your countrymen have fallen? When your own soldiers and countrymen are not housed and fed well? This is an area ripe for examination in this genre. On the other side, do prisoners have a responsibility to act humanely to their captors? How much cooperation becomes aiding or even collaborating. In many of these films, Allied prisoners talk about the principle that they are bound to make as much trouble for their captors as possible and escape as often as possible. The thinking goes that every soldier and dollar they tie up on them, is a soldier and a dollar taken away from the war front. However, if prisoners decide to be as troublesome as possible, does that give their captors excuse to be more troublesome to them? For example, if prisoners are trying to escape, does that give the prison allowance to feed them less and be more physical in their punishment? This is a fascinating ethical back and forth in my mind and one not examined as much as the fun puzzle like escape aspects of the genre. There's more mined in the movies below than just those topics, but I want the reader to realize that there's a lot more going on here than just some soldiers being kept behind barbed wire fences.

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this genre? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 9 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.


Recommendations
The Basics: It would be easy and traditional to recommend one of the big three POW films, the ones the Oscars will show clips of, the ones your dad and your grandpa talk about: Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, or The Great Escape. However, I feel the true masterpiece of this genre and one of the most underrated gems of war films is the 1965 film The Hill. The film is based on a play, directed by Sidney Lumet, and stars Sean Connery in one of his more underrated performances. The "escape" centered films might be more fun, but this one brings hard earned truth and insight. 
  • Best POW Film: The Hill (1965)

Deep Dives: In a stacked category like this one - it's difficult to slim down my recommendations. After you've seen The Hill and are wanting a deeper taste of the genre, then I'd recommend a double feature of The Bridge on the River Kwai and To End All Wars. Based on similar accounts about life in Japanese POW camps, the two films tell similar stories with different emphasis: BOTRK on the irony & ignorance of British "superiority" and TEAW on faith in the midst of suffering. From there, I'd recommend a double feature of two fun escape films, The Colditz Story and The Great Escape. Finally, though they are different in nature, I'd recommend the somewhat odd pairing of Stalag 17 and Empire of the Sun. Both have a cynical edge to them, find humor and wonder in ironic places, and focus on a kind of loss of innocence. There are lots of great films in this category that dramatically sketch out the adventurous qualities and sobering realities of life as a WWII POW.
  • Pacific POW Stories: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) / To End All Wars (2001)
  • Escape Stories: The Colditz Story (1955) / The Great Escape (1961)
  • Humor & Wonder in Cynical Spaces: Stalag 17 (1953) / Empire of the Sun (1987)

Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
  • A+ = All-time Classic
  • A   = Excellent Film
  • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
  • B+ = Very Good film
  • B   = Good Film
  • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
  • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
  • C   = Mediocre Film
  • C-  = Poor Film
  • D+ = Bad Film
  • I don't usually rate anything lower
1. Stalag 17 (1953) IMDB
- The most intimate and personal portrayal of prisoners out of the great WW2 trinity of POW films (Bridge on the River Kwai and Great Escape being the other two). This excellent film, directed and adapted by Billy Wilder from a play, balances a big sense of humor with the sober reality of prison life and escape attempts. The added element of a possible German spy hiding out in the prison barracks turns up the tension on this one quite a bit. William Holden is really excellent as the lead character here. For my tastes, I think the film is balanced a little too far in favor of the humor and sillier aspects. Still, an enjoyable and moving view. GRADE: B+

2. The Colditz Story (1955) IMDB
- Colditz Castle in Germany became a holding place for many Allied POW’s who had a history of trying to escape. Based on a true story, this film recounts the efforts of different Allied nationalities at busting out and the films ends with the first successful escape. There are a lot of creative escape attempts shown here and it’s never not an engaging viewing. It doesn't reach the "escape" scheming heights of something like The Great Escape, or the personal drama of Stalag 17, but if you like heist type films, you’ll enjoy this one. GRADE: B

3. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) IMDB
- I would rank this one as the "think piece" of the WWII POW Trinity. It’s the most serious of the three films and unlike the other two, takes place in the Asian sphere of the war. Set in a Japanese prison camp, the British prisoners are required to help build a railway bridge. The Japanese commander and British commander, played by a locked in Alec Guiness, square off in a battle of wit and wills. I like this film, but like the entirety of the POW trilogy, I feel there’s always something here keeping it back from being a real masterpiece. In this case, the film does drag quite a bit as it follows a commando (featuring William Holden) subplot that could have been reduced by nearly half. GRADE: B+

4. The Great Escape (1961) IMDB
- The final part of the great WW2 trinity of POW films and it is easily the most fun. From the very beginning, the men of the camp are devising ways of escape. The enjoyment of this movie is in learning all the different roles each man takes on the escape and all the clever ways they use to trick their guards. In that way, it's very much like the joy of a heist film - instead of cracking a safe or getting around an alarm system, you have the camp security. It’s a lot of fun. That’s the strength and its also a bit of the weakness. It’s fun to watch the creative escape attempts, but often it feels too easy at times and the guards feel a little too Hogan’s Heroes 'esque. I think a bit more realism and difficulty would only serve to enhance the amazing true story the film is based one. After the major escape takes place, I feel the film drags a bit following the different soldiers in their attempts to get free. Some are more interesting than others. GRADE: B+

5. The Hill (1965) IMDB
-  Leave it to Sidney Lumet to bring the sobering reality! In a twist on the typical POW film, this film (based on a play) takes place in a British military prison (for soldiers charged with crimes) in North Africa. The camp is run with brutal order and severe discipline. Right in the middle of the camp is the titular hill that prisoners are forced to run up and down for punishment. The film begins with the arrival of five new prisoners with Joe Roberts, played by Sean Connery, among them. The prisoner introduction sequence is effective and brutal: it introduces us to the prison geographically, our five new prisoners, and a few of the staff guards who can run the spectrum of fair, tough, and sadistic. They days go by and a sadistic guard named Williams (played incredibly well by Ian Hendry) pushes a prisoner too far. The prisoner dies in the night and the camp guards and doctors begin looking to shift the blame and angle for an accidental death. What works so well, and Lumet and the screenplay capitalize on this, is the brutally honest/insightful psychology at work. You can see all the contradictory instincts of how each prisoner and guards wants to help each other, do what's right, look out for themselves, do their duty, justify their own actions, and find some little comfort in these horrible circumstances. It all comes to head on a crazy day that begins with a near riot settled down with great delicacy and ingenuity by the Sergeant Major. The ends with a showdown in a prison cell where hierarchies of power, order following, and self-protection all come to clash in an intense and insightful sequence. I guess this film is close enough to being a "seventies film" that if has to offer one last bitter note near the end as well. There are lots of good POW films - this is the best. GRADE: A

6. Empire of the Sun (1987) IMDB
- A mostly forgotten Spielberg film, but a very good "coming of age" film set in a Japanese internment camp. A young British boy, played by Christian Bale, is separated from his family when the Japanese invade Shanghai and he winds up into a prison camp for nationals. Trying to balance the line between childlike wonder at war and the sobering realities of it the film takes a lot on its shoulders. Like many in this category, it’s a bit overlong and overstuffed, but there’s several worthy moments along the way. GRADE: B+
 
7. To End All Wars (2001) IMDB
- This film is adapted from British soldier Ernest Gordon's book Through the Valley of the Kwai. The film is about Gordon's time as a POW in a Japanese camp in Burma/Thailand where the prisoners were required by the Japanese to build a railroad. If that sounds familiar, it is because Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from the same real life circumstances, just from a different soldier. Where Kwai wasn't necessarily focused on realism and instead chose to center the battle of wills between American/Japanese officers and the folly of British "superiority", To End All Wars has chosen to focus on realism, suffering, and faith. That the suffering is genuine and real is necessary because the emphasis on forgiveness and hope in later moments would come off superficial. I won't ruin the particulars here, but I will say that I quite enjoyed the dramatic faith moments and think they are well earned by the production's commitment to realism throughout. I'm surprised this one was so overlooked at the time. It remains a hidden gem of the genre. 
GRADE: B+

8. Hart’s War (2002) IMDB
- It takes fifty minutes for the inciting event of this film to come into play. Until then, it's just a routine POW film whose specific goal or conflict is near completely absent. This is a problem. The inciting incident is the framing and murder of an African American prisoner by the German guards. Though this is kind of passed over until a white prisoner is killed and the other African American solider in the camp is found standing over him. This happens about an hour into the film. The point of all this setup is that there's going to be a court-martial trial for the murder of the white soldier through the rest of the film. A game Colin Farrell and a stoic/mysterious (or just bored) Bruce Willis play captured Lieutenants and Farrell plays the role of counsel for the accused. While you think this is the point of the film, it's actually a ruse for Willis' character to plot something else. If this all sounds a bit unfocused and scattered, it's because it is. It's never outright bad, there's one or two nice "court" moments peppered in there, but it's never really all that compelling either. There's like 3 or 4 surprise revelations at the end that play less like revelations and more like dramatic overreaches to try and make the plot ends connect and give character arcs happy endings. Not bad, but it's certainly one to skip out on in this genre. GRADE: C

9. Unbroken (2014) IMDB
- The last film in this category is directed by Angelina Jolie and tells the story of Louis Zamperini's perseverance as a prisoner of war in the Pacific campaign. Zamperini's story feels like fiction - an Olympic runner, shot down in the Pacific campaign, survives in a lifeboat for over 40 days, and then survives two different POW camps. The novelization is apparently fantastic, the Coens had a hand in the screenwriting, and Roger Deakins is on cinematography duty. Even better, Jolie and Deakins say they were inspired by the masterpiece The Hill (also on this list) in filmng this. What could go wrong? 

The film begins with a well-executed sequence depicting a U.S. bombing run with Zamperini as the bombardier. Near the end of the run, we have one of those moments when the camera zooms in on the adult eyes and we zoom back to childhood. These flashback scenes of Louis Zamperini's life are filled with stereotype, cliché, and bad acting. We get catch phrases that are non-sequiturs in their context like, "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory" and "If you can take it, you can make it." This whole sequence is genuinely bad, stick outs when compared to the strong opening bombing sequence, and casts a sickly shadow on what might come for the rest of the film. What does happen is a pretty workman like telling of the story that, like the childhood flashbacks, indulges a bit too much in easy cliché. I think this life story, which is stuffed with big happenings, is probably dramatically better structured for a mini series. Olympics, being a bombadier, lost at sea for 47 days, POW camps, and even the untold story after his return - these are all big enough to fill individual movies or episodes of their own. Still, that said, it's a fascinating individual story that's fairly well told. GRADE: C+

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