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Arguably the oddest production of the quietly odd postwar British film industry, Roy Ward Baker's The One that Got Away (1957) wears its quixotic mission right on its sleeve - that is, its opening title card. This is the true story, we're told, of "the only German" ever to have been captured by the British during World War II, to be interred in prisoner-of-war camps, and to have successfully escaped back to his homeland. One Franz von Werra, a hot-blooded fighter pilot and apparent first-class liar, tried several times to escape while in England until, after finally being shipped to Canada, slipped the leash and managed to cross into the U.S.... Where, in 1941, he was safe and eligible for deportation. The real question that persists when considering this story and this film is why on Earth the Brits - in fact, The Rank Organization, the nation's preeminent studio - would choose to make a film about von Werra, whose escape attempts seem on the surface to reflect either a Germanic resilience or a British incompetence or both. Is the film an expression of triumphant British modesty or even confidence, a dozen years after the war's end (a form of gloating, perhaps, ruminating on the single escapee and how little, in the end, his escape mattered?), or were the filmmakers critiquing their nation's wartime performance? Try to strain your brain imagining a German or American or Russian film about their own national failures at simply keeping tabs on their own POWs, and the strangeness of Baker's film becomes stark. Only the English.
Hardy Kruger, all buff and cocky and baby-faced, glams it up as von Werra, facing his amused and disaffected captors with a boyish rebelliousness, but his sexy star turn aside, the more you take in of The One that Got Away, the more the film deflects any presupposition or expectation you might have about it. The general aura of the film is, like so many British films about the war (think of Powell & Pressburger's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, from 1942), bizarrely calm, relaxed, undramatic, even serene. Von Werra's story is not constructed as a thrilling escape tale, but as a neutral piece of reportage, with a sense of bemused detachment. Von Werra bridles at his incarceration, but not out of nationalism, as one British officer laconically notes early on. Rather, von Werra is a rampaging egoist, ironically trapped in a quaint country of shrugging wartime introverts. The Brits he meets, officers and guards mostly, are not terribly distinguishable one from the other, and all are diffident and unruffled. Even the first prison, a converted mansion in the middle of Lancashire, offers something like life in a POW camp in an E.M. Forster novel, complete with ivy, vintage wallpaper and fireplaces.
Von Werra escapes several times, and is recaptured, and he is treated firmly but humanely across the board; were the filmmakers hoping to impress us with England's indefatigability amid the pressures of wartime? It's hard to guess, because Baker's film walks the finest of lines - we track von Werra's progress, across rainy moors and back into custody, half-empathizing with his quest. We don't root for him per se, but neither does the film paint him as a villain of any kind. His captors, unemotional as they are, are seen as neither buffoons nor heroes, and von Werra's escapes are not the result of his cleverness or the Brits' laziness. They just are, things that happened. Von Werra himself is little more than a vain troublemaker, and the very structure of the film nudges us toward wanting him to succeed. Which, we know from the outset, he does, but you wonder still how the filmmakers, and to some respect audiences, came to accept a semi-heroic Nazi with the war's end, and the revelations it brought, still so fresh in the memory. During the war, it was standard operating procedure in movies to be cavalier and sporting with the Axis warriors, an attitude carried over from the previous century's ideas of fair war and aristocratic rivalry. But after 1946, to carry that idea forward in regards to Nazis would, you'd think, be a thorny and impossible project. But here it is, in a film assembled with an obvious love for the south English countryside but otherwise with an overriding air of neutrality that dares to de-dramatize its prison escape scenarios, and refuses to side with either the fugitive or his pursuers.
Of course, von Werra's story is more complex than the film lets on - his Wikipedia entry oozes with omitted facts (there's one escape attempt both the film and the book upon which it's based overlook), and with a sense of British wartime decorum that is quite a bit rougher and less indulgent than Baker's film suggests. As it is, the pilot did make it home to Germany in '41, got decorated by Hitler, and then seven months later went missing over the North Sea, never to be found. Perhaps the film's unabashed opening title card was just one part of the equation, the question of "why-this-story?" answered almost two hours later by the last crawl of text, which essentially says yes, one got away, but what good did it do him or the Reich? All's well, after all, that ends well.
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Screenplay: Howard Clewes, based on the book by Kendal Burt & James Leasor
Cinematography: Eric Cross
Art Direction: Edward Carrick
Music: Hubert Clifford
Film Editing: Sidney Hayers
Cast: Hardy Kruger (Franz Von Werra), Colin Gordon (Army Interrogator), Michael Goodliffe (R.A.F. Interrogator), Terence Alexander (R.A.F. Interrogator), Alec McCowen (Hucknall), Jack Gwillim (Commandant).
by Michael Atkinson