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WWII in the Movies: Allied Powers
Remind Me

The Purple Plain

Hollywood's love affair with international production proved a boon in 1954 when Gregory Peck starred in The Purple Plain, a thought-provoking World War II picture about a Canadian flyer trapped behind enemy lines in Burma. Although it ultimately underperformed at the box office, The Purple Plain has become one of Peck's most respected pictures while also serving as the highlight of director Robert Parrish's unjustly sporadic career.

In the '50s, new tax laws offered major tax breaks to U.S. citizens who worked outside the country for extended periods. As a result, several Hollywood stars based themselves overseas for a few years, with only brief return visits home as allowed by Internal Revenue. Peck signed a two-picture deal with British producer John Bryan to take advantage of the new laws. They had started their partnership with Man with a Million (1953), an adaptation of Mark Twain's story "The Million Pound Bank Note." Then Paramount's decision to shoot director William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953) made it possible for Peck to continue working outside the country. During filming of that classic, Bryan approached Peck about starring in a 1947 novel by H.E. Bates, best known for such comic romances as Love for Lydia and The Darling Buds of May. Peck accepted the project on condition that it be filmed on location and that his character's Asian love interest be played by an Asian actress.

The former worked mostly to the film's advantage. Although interiors were shot in England's Pinewood Studios, for the jungle scenes, Bryan took his company to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a popular film location off the coast of India. By the time they arrived, the island nation had already enjoyed a healthy dose of Hollywood glamour during the recent filming of Elephant Walk (1954) with Elizabeth Taylor. In 1957, it would provide the locations for another classic World War II tale, The Bridge on the River Kwai. With the script's respectful depiction of military heroism, Bryan got full cooperation from the Royal Air Force, which donated three bombers and some personnel stationed in Singapore. On the down side, however, the rainy season caused several production delays.

Location shooting almost proved dangerous for Peck. He was undergoing a painful separation from his wife, and, although he had fallen in love with a French journalist who would eventually become his second wife, he was deeply disturbed about the breakup of his first marriage. Most nights he couldn't sleep at all, reading or simply staring into the darkness. But one night, director Robert Parrish awoke to the sound of Peck screaming as he raced out of the tent barefoot and headed through the clearing towards the snake-infested jungle. Fearing he was about to lose his leading man, Parrish tackled him, but it took a few minutes for the actor to realize where he was. With Peck's permission, they re-wrote the film's opening to reflect the incident, with Peck's character racing into the night after dreaming about his wife's death in the London Blitz, a scene they captured in just one take. As Parrish would say, "I guess that's because Greg and I had rehearsed it so well."

Casting an Asian actress opposite Peck for The Purple Plain brought some unexpected problems. Two hundred women showed up for the auditions, though many were clearly unsuitable and had only signed up to meet Peck. The production company finally settled on a beautiful young woman named Win Min Than, but she shook her head so much when she spoke that the crew had to construct a special brace for her. She also came with a jealous husband, concerned about losing her to the film's "decadent" Hollywood star. He even ordered his wife to eat garlic before romantic scenes with Peck. Fortunately, the production crew managed to convince Than's husband that Peck and the American crew were completely respectful of the actress and he returned home to let his wife finish the picture in peace; it would prove to be her only movie. When The Purple Plain was ready for release, Than undertook an extensive U.S. publicity tour.

Director Parrish was a former child star and Oscar®-winning film editor (for 1947's Body and Soul) then on the rise in Hollywood. The Purple Plain would be his first important picture after making his debut with a pair of low-budget crime films, Cry Danger and The Mob (both 1951). Despite interesting work on The Purple Plain, the Robert Mitchum Western The Wonderful Country (1959) and the 1965 war film Up from the Beach, he never made the move to A-list director. In an era when Hollywood filmmaking was far from stable, he soon tired of living from job to job, leaving the U.S. to focus on international productions and then taking a nine-year hiatus from filmmaking. His return, the music documentary Mississippi Blues (1983), was met with indifferent reviews, despite the fact that his co-director was the then-fashionable Bertrand Tavernier. It would be his last film.

The most prominent success to come out of The Purple Plain was Geoffrey Unsworth, whose cinematography matched Peck's passionate emotions with a rich color palette. Unsworth had been doing outstanding work lensing British films since 1943, winning special notice for his work on the first version of The Blue Lagoon (1949), starring Jean Simmons. He would later film A Night to Remember (1958), often called the best film ever made about the sinking of the Titanic; Becket (1964), for which Bryan won an Oscar® for Art Direction; and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He would win Oscars® for Cabaret (1972) and Tess (1979).

The Purple Plain opened to solid reviews, but the unconventional war story (the enemy is never even seen) and lack of other major stars may have kept audiences away at a time when films were suffering at the box office thanks to competition from the still-new medium of television. Variety listed it as the 95th highest-grossing film of the year, but with only $1.3 million in rentals, it failed to make back its $2 million budget. French critics, however, have hailed Parrish as a major talent often overlooked and underrated in his native country, and honored him with a retrospective in 1963.

Producer: John Bryan
Director: Robert Parrish
Screenplay: Eric Ambler
Based on the novel by H.E. Bates
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Art Direction: Jack Maxsted
Music: John Veale
Principal Cast: Gregory Peck (Forrester), Win Min Than (Anna), Bernard Lee (Dr. Harris), Maurice Denham (Blore), Ram Gopal (Mr. Phang), Brenda De Banzie (Miss McNab), Lyndon Brook (Carrington).

by Frank Miller

Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall



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