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The Password is Courage

Akin to a British version of Stalag 17 (1953), The Password Is Courage (1962) is the true story of a British WWII hero with the unlikely name of Charlie Coward. Coward was a sergeant major who was captured in 1940 and spent the remainder of the war as a POW -- but not without causing major trouble for the Germans. Even on his initial trip to the prison camp, he managed to set fire to a passing Nazi munitions train and twice tried to escape. He made seven more escape attempts over the next five years, culminating in a massive tunnel break, and was re-captured six times.

But more importantly, he created small irritations and, when possible, carried out larger-scale acts of sabotage against the Germans. He damaged millions of marks' worth of German equipment, brazenly saved lives at Auschwitz by substituting dead men for live ones, sent word back to England of the coming blitz, and after the war testified at the Nuremburg trials. At one point his fluent German allowed him to pose as a wounded solider in a German field hospital, and he was awarded the German Iron Cross.

In 1954, author John Castle published a book about Coward's exploits entitled The Password Is Courage. It was optioned by the husband-and-wife producers Andrew and Virginia Stone (Andrew also wrote and directed the film, and Virginia was supervising editor), who had a reputation for shooting their films on location and with high degrees of realism. For this picture, plans to shoot on the European continent fell through, and they shot instead in the towns and countryside of England.

For a spectacular train wreck sequence, the company bought a British Railways locomotive that was due to be retired. They disguised it with smoke deflectors and iron crosses, sent it up a 40-foot hill at 30mph, then derailed it and sent it plunging down an embankment, all in front of five cameras. The Stones also built a German "stalag" in Eppings Forest outside of London; used a real, defunct, military hospital for hospital scenes; bought forty assorted trucks, twenty to be blown up and the rest to be hurled off a cliff; and purchased an old lumber mill that they could burn to the ground.

In the mill sequence, Coward (played in the film by Dirk Bogarde) and his men burn it down as sabotage, then convince a German officer that it happened because the officer was smoking on duty. Coward tells the officer that he won't report the incident if he gets to spend the afternoon off, without a guard, at a nearby town.

Apparently these incidents all actually happened, and Coward himself served as the film's technical advisor to ensure authenticity. That said, there has been some speculation in the years since Coward's death that his tales were exaggerated to some degree. But in any case, the movie stands as an entertaining, if lighthearted, account of one man's skill at consistently outwitting his captors, a man whom Andrew and Virginia Stone described as "a Scarlet Pimpernel character."

Audiences and critics liked The Password Is Courage, though some eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of the Auschwitz sequence in what is essentially a light film. The New York Times declared the movie to be "a lively, catchy show" and The Hollywood Reporter decreed, "The picture moves along, it has legitimate humor in essentially grim circumstances, and is highlighted by the spectacular action sequences the Stones have made their hallmark." Another trade paper, Variety, said the movie "lacks conviction" and thought it all came across "more like reel life than real life." The review added, "Bogarde gives a performance that is never less than competent, but never much more."

By Jeremy Arnold VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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