The Bamboo Prison


1h 19m 1955
The Bamboo Prison

Brief Synopsis

An undercover agent investigates atrocities at a Korean P.O.W. camp.

Film Details

Also Known As
I Was a Prisoner in Korea, Those Reported Missing
Genre
Drama
War
Release Date
Jan 1955
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Columbia Pictures Corp.; Yof Corp.
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures Corp.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 19m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Recording)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1
Film Length
8 reels

Synopsis

In North Korea, American soldiers captured by the North Korean army are marched to a prisoner-of-war camp, run by the Communist Chinese. The men are angered to discover that their barracks chief, Sgt. John Rand, has become a collaborator, or "Progressive," in order to receive preferential treatment. Shortly after the men's arrival, Father Francis Dolan visits and gives them a smuggled bar of soap. A couple of days later, during a lecture, soldier "Arkansas" mocks the chief of propaganda, and John informs on him. Arkansas is promptly sent to solitary, or the "icebox," as it is known among the men. Corp. Brady, already outraged by John's attitude, chafes over his betrayal of Arkansas. Brady and the other new arrivals are then surprised to witness the appearance of Tanya Clayton, a former ballerina and the wife of camp brain-washing expert and American turncoat Clayton. One afternoon, John meets Brady loitering alone in the barracks, and delivers several passwords, revealing that he is the intelligence operative Brady has orders to contact. John discloses that he is near to being accepted by the camp leaders as a complete Progressive, and, as such, will have access to proof of camp atrocities and Soviet involvement in the war, vital to the United Nation peace-talks. In the camp commandant's office, John is questioned about his political beliefs and asked if he would be willing to make radio broadcasts reiterating his beliefs. Upon declaring the U.S. political system corrupt and agreeing to make the broadcasts, John is awarded with private quarters. Later, at another clandestine meeting with Brady, John reveals that he intends to use Tanya because Clayton was a former correspondent for an American Communist newspaper and likely to have the vital documents needed by Intelligence. John sits in on a grilling of several soldiers, one of whom, "Doc" Johnson, an African American, infuriates the camp leaders by declaring that despite America's social flaws, he would never abandon his country. Doc is beaten and placed in the icebox, and John is blamed. Later, Dolan meets with Clayton and reveals himself as an undercover Communist operator intent on learning the identity of the Intelligence spy inside the camp. As John now resides outside of the camp grounds, he and Brady correspond secretly, coding their messages by punching pin holes in newspapers that are delivered between them. Upon making his first radio broadcast, John also sends significant information to U.S. Intelligence by using several code words and phrases. John then visits Tanya and implies romantic interest in her, but she initially resists, having grown disillusioned with the political machinations of her husband. Meanwhile, Brady and the men are stunned when an easy-going, longtime prisoner, Pop, abruptly attempts an escape but is captured and placed in the icebox. Arkansas and Doc are released and Doc tells Brady he believes that there is a camp informer as Pop revealed that the camp guard had known of his escape plan. When Dolan then arrives and speaks of Pop's torture and the possibility of an informant, Brady grows suspicious. John continues visiting Tanya and makes attempts to unearth Clayton's papers. During a severe air raid attack, Clayton's safe is revealed and Tanya realizes that John has been using her and grows angry. John assures Tanya that he has truly developed feelings for her, but she orders him to leave. At the camp, meanwhile, the bombing has destroyed the radio tower and the icebox. Attempting to flee, Pop is shot as the men watch. The next day, during a camp ballgame, Dolan notices Brady leave a rolled newspaper in the library pick-up box and later recovers it. He discovers the pinholes, which spell out the word "priest," and goes to the camp library to search for more papers. John discovers him there, but Dolan evades his questions. Tanya then summons John and agrees to give him her husband's private papers after she copies them. Upon leaving the Claytons', John finds Dolan in his jeep, waiting for a ride back to camp. On the road, Dolan draws a gun, confronts John as the spy and admits he is not the real Father Dolan. John succeeds in throwing Dolan off balance and the men tumble into the road, fighting until John strangles Dolan. Back at camp, John informs Brady that as the radio tower is destroyed, he must hand deliver the documents, and the two agree to stage a phony camp yard brawl to cover Brady's escape. Meanwhile, Clayton has discovered that Tanya has tampered with his papers, and when she refuses to reveal her accomplice, forces her to play Russian roulette, until John and Brady arrive and John kills Clayton. Brady then dresses in Clayton's clothes and uses his identification papers to leave the country with Tanya. The publication of the documents hasten the truce talks, and within weeks, a cease-fire is agreed upon and the prisoners are set free. The Army offers John an opportunity to be repatriated, even playing a recorded plea from his mother, but, knowing more intelligence work is needed in the battle against Communism, John declares he does not wish to return to America. Before being taken back into North Korea, John sees Tanya and Brady and promises them that he will return soon.

Film Details

Also Known As
I Was a Prisoner in Korea, Those Reported Missing
Genre
Drama
War
Release Date
Jan 1955
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Columbia Pictures Corp.; Yof Corp.
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures Corp.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 19m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Recording)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1
Film Length
8 reels

Articles

The Bamboo Prison


Shot by B-movie producer Bryan Foy for Columbia Pictures, The Bamboo Prison (1955) is an uncharacteristically expensive-looking film about a then-hot and controversial topic. The conflict in Korea had come to a halt with the ceasefire in July 1953, and returning American POWs were intensively questioned and examined, particularly because an unusual percentage had participated in defections and anti-American propaganda while in captivity. During the war, there was much discussion of "thought reform" and "coercive persuasion" techniques used by Chinese captors to an extent never seen before. In 1950, the term "brainwashing" entered the lexicon, and that extended, of course, to popular culture and movies.

The screenplay for The Bamboo Prison (by Edwin Blum and Jack DeWitt) was obviously influenced by Billy Wilder's recent (and very successful) WWII comedy-drama Stalag 17 (1953). It freely "borrows" several aspects of that film's plot and character types, but introduces a brainwashing motivation as well as a major female character. Following a 40-day death march, the 70 survivors from a group of 166 U.S. and United Nations soldiers and peacekeepers are led into a North Korean Prisoner-of-War camp. The new arrivals in Barracks #3 are furious to learn that the only cot available is reserved for MSgt. John A. Rand (Robert Francis), who is, in the words of one prisoner, a "stinking collaborator. Commies have a fancy name for it – Progressive." The other men are treated terribly, lacking proper medication and food, while mornings are brutally interrupted by blaring music played though loudspeakers. Father Francis Dolan (E. G. Marshall) does what he can to help morale by smuggling occasional bars of soap or other items to the men. A constant at the camp are the lectures by Li Ching (Keye Luke) and other brainwashing attempts by the Chinese Communists. During one lecture, "Arkansas" (Jerome Courtland) mocks the session by leading the men in a sarcastic song called "Oh, We've Never Had It So Good Before." When Rand points out the mockery, "Arkansas" is sent to the Icehouse – solitary confinement – because, "you have answered Proletarian hospitality with Bourgeois ingratitude." One of the new arrivals, Cpl. Brady (Brian Keith), observes the men's treatment of Rand, and learns the truth about Rand's beliefs during a private conversation. Rand continues to earn special privileges, including contact with Russian brainwashing expert Comrade Clayton (Murray Matheson) and his wife Tanya (Dianne Foster), a former ballerina.

In his book A guide to films on the Korean War, Paul M. Edwards writes that The Bamboo Prison "...attempts to be the Korean Stalag 17 (1953). ...[It] tries, and generally fails, to provide an excuse for those prisoners who, after years of confinement and re-training, made their decision not to return to the United States. The film's suggestion, that some Americans who were called 'turncoats' in the Korean and Chinese prisoner-of-war camps, were there as agents working for the United States, does not hold water. There is no evidence this was true for Americans, but was in fact the case for the Chinese, who deliberately sent men to be captured in order to organize the camps and cause difficulty later on." Edwards asserts that producer Foy sought out approval from the Defense Department, but the U.S. military did not offer any assistance to the film, "...because at the time the film was being prepared, the United States government was planning to prosecute some returned POWs. It was felt that the projected film would mislead Americans about the prisons as well as the prisoners."

Edwards also wrote, "Despite its many flaws and limited accuracy, this film did provide a strong introduction to the experience that has been identified as 'brainwashing.' And, despite efforts to the contrary, it showed Americans as being rather weak when dealing with captivity. The captured Americans displayed little or no confidence when placed under serious stress or crisis." This latter point may have been one reason that The Bamboo Prison ran into some censorship trouble upon release. In January of 1955 local censors in Memphis, Tennessee announced that they would ban the film, and called it "unpatriotic" and "[not] a good picture for our young people to see." Columbia Pictures responded in April by threatening suit against the Memphis Board of Censors. In an April 9, 1955 article in Boxoffice magazine titled "Memphis 'Chickens Out' On Censorship Test," a lawyer for Columbia, William W. Goodman, said that he was actually disappointed that the ban was not challenged in court. "We did not ask the board to reverse itself," he said. "Frankly, I wish they hadn't. We don't like censorship per se, and not the kind used on The Bamboo Prison. I believe we would have had the matter reversed in the lower court, but if not there, in the higher court." The article noted that the chairman of the censor board, Lloyd T. Binford, was 88 years old, and that the other three members of the board, all women, were divided on the ban reversal. One of the women, a Mrs. St. Elmo Newton, agreed to the reversal but told Boxoffice, "I still think it's a rotten picture, though."

Keye Luke makes a memorable appearance in The Bamboo Prison as Comrade-Instructor Li Ching, a Chinese officer in charge of "thought reform." Humor is wrung from the fact that he is clueless to sarcasm, so the POWs have some fun at his expense. Nicknames are common and at one point a prisoner spies Li Chung approaching the barracks and says, "Here comes Charlie Chan." This gag serves double duty as an inside joke, since Keye Luke played Lee Chan, the #1 Son of the famed detective, in numerous films dating back to 1935.

The Bamboo Prison was the third of only four films featuring Robert Francis, all made for Columbia Pictures. Following an impressive debut as the lead opposite Donna Reed in the Phil Karlson western They Rode West (1954), Francis appeared in Edward Dmytryk's The Caine Mutiny (1954). His final film was The Long Gray Line (1955), directed by John Ford. Francis was a pilot and was killed on July 31, 1955 after crashing following takeoff from Burbank Airport in a small private plane; he was only 25 years old.

Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Edwin Blum (screenplay); Jack DeWitt (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editing: Henry Baptista
Cast: Robert Francis (MSgt. John A. Rand), Dianne Foster (Tanya Clayton), Brian Keith (Cpl. Brady), Jerome Courtland (Arkansas), E.G. Marshall (Father Francis Dolan), Earle Hyman (Doc Jackson), Jack Kelly (Slade), Richard Loo (Commandant Hsai Tung), Keye Luke (Comrade-Instructor Li Ching), Murray Matheson (Comrade Clayton).
BW-79m.

By John M. Miller

The Bamboo Prison

The Bamboo Prison

Shot by B-movie producer Bryan Foy for Columbia Pictures, The Bamboo Prison (1955) is an uncharacteristically expensive-looking film about a then-hot and controversial topic. The conflict in Korea had come to a halt with the ceasefire in July 1953, and returning American POWs were intensively questioned and examined, particularly because an unusual percentage had participated in defections and anti-American propaganda while in captivity. During the war, there was much discussion of "thought reform" and "coercive persuasion" techniques used by Chinese captors to an extent never seen before. In 1950, the term "brainwashing" entered the lexicon, and that extended, of course, to popular culture and movies. The screenplay for The Bamboo Prison (by Edwin Blum and Jack DeWitt) was obviously influenced by Billy Wilder's recent (and very successful) WWII comedy-drama Stalag 17 (1953). It freely "borrows" several aspects of that film's plot and character types, but introduces a brainwashing motivation as well as a major female character. Following a 40-day death march, the 70 survivors from a group of 166 U.S. and United Nations soldiers and peacekeepers are led into a North Korean Prisoner-of-War camp. The new arrivals in Barracks #3 are furious to learn that the only cot available is reserved for MSgt. John A. Rand (Robert Francis), who is, in the words of one prisoner, a "stinking collaborator. Commies have a fancy name for it – Progressive." The other men are treated terribly, lacking proper medication and food, while mornings are brutally interrupted by blaring music played though loudspeakers. Father Francis Dolan (E. G. Marshall) does what he can to help morale by smuggling occasional bars of soap or other items to the men. A constant at the camp are the lectures by Li Ching (Keye Luke) and other brainwashing attempts by the Chinese Communists. During one lecture, "Arkansas" (Jerome Courtland) mocks the session by leading the men in a sarcastic song called "Oh, We've Never Had It So Good Before." When Rand points out the mockery, "Arkansas" is sent to the Icehouse – solitary confinement – because, "you have answered Proletarian hospitality with Bourgeois ingratitude." One of the new arrivals, Cpl. Brady (Brian Keith), observes the men's treatment of Rand, and learns the truth about Rand's beliefs during a private conversation. Rand continues to earn special privileges, including contact with Russian brainwashing expert Comrade Clayton (Murray Matheson) and his wife Tanya (Dianne Foster), a former ballerina. In his book A guide to films on the Korean War, Paul M. Edwards writes that The Bamboo Prison "...attempts to be the Korean Stalag 17 (1953). ...[It] tries, and generally fails, to provide an excuse for those prisoners who, after years of confinement and re-training, made their decision not to return to the United States. The film's suggestion, that some Americans who were called 'turncoats' in the Korean and Chinese prisoner-of-war camps, were there as agents working for the United States, does not hold water. There is no evidence this was true for Americans, but was in fact the case for the Chinese, who deliberately sent men to be captured in order to organize the camps and cause difficulty later on." Edwards asserts that producer Foy sought out approval from the Defense Department, but the U.S. military did not offer any assistance to the film, "...because at the time the film was being prepared, the United States government was planning to prosecute some returned POWs. It was felt that the projected film would mislead Americans about the prisons as well as the prisoners." Edwards also wrote, "Despite its many flaws and limited accuracy, this film did provide a strong introduction to the experience that has been identified as 'brainwashing.' And, despite efforts to the contrary, it showed Americans as being rather weak when dealing with captivity. The captured Americans displayed little or no confidence when placed under serious stress or crisis." This latter point may have been one reason that The Bamboo Prison ran into some censorship trouble upon release. In January of 1955 local censors in Memphis, Tennessee announced that they would ban the film, and called it "unpatriotic" and "[not] a good picture for our young people to see." Columbia Pictures responded in April by threatening suit against the Memphis Board of Censors. In an April 9, 1955 article in Boxoffice magazine titled "Memphis 'Chickens Out' On Censorship Test," a lawyer for Columbia, William W. Goodman, said that he was actually disappointed that the ban was not challenged in court. "We did not ask the board to reverse itself," he said. "Frankly, I wish they hadn't. We don't like censorship per se, and not the kind used on The Bamboo Prison. I believe we would have had the matter reversed in the lower court, but if not there, in the higher court." The article noted that the chairman of the censor board, Lloyd T. Binford, was 88 years old, and that the other three members of the board, all women, were divided on the ban reversal. One of the women, a Mrs. St. Elmo Newton, agreed to the reversal but told Boxoffice, "I still think it's a rotten picture, though." Keye Luke makes a memorable appearance in The Bamboo Prison as Comrade-Instructor Li Ching, a Chinese officer in charge of "thought reform." Humor is wrung from the fact that he is clueless to sarcasm, so the POWs have some fun at his expense. Nicknames are common and at one point a prisoner spies Li Chung approaching the barracks and says, "Here comes Charlie Chan." This gag serves double duty as an inside joke, since Keye Luke played Lee Chan, the #1 Son of the famed detective, in numerous films dating back to 1935. The Bamboo Prison was the third of only four films featuring Robert Francis, all made for Columbia Pictures. Following an impressive debut as the lead opposite Donna Reed in the Phil Karlson western They Rode West (1954), Francis appeared in Edward Dmytryk's The Caine Mutiny (1954). His final film was The Long Gray Line (1955), directed by John Ford. Francis was a pilot and was killed on July 31, 1955 after crashing following takeoff from Burbank Airport in a small private plane; he was only 25 years old. Producer: Bryan Foy Director: Lewis Seiler Screenplay: Edwin Blum (screenplay); Jack DeWitt (screenplay and story) Cinematography: Burnett Guffey Art Direction: Cary Odell Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff Film Editing: Henry Baptista Cast: Robert Francis (MSgt. John A. Rand), Dianne Foster (Tanya Clayton), Brian Keith (Cpl. Brady), Jerome Courtland (Arkansas), E.G. Marshall (Father Francis Dolan), Earle Hyman (Doc Jackson), Jack Kelly (Slade), Richard Loo (Commandant Hsai Tung), Keye Luke (Comrade-Instructor Li Ching), Murray Matheson (Comrade Clayton). BW-79m. By John M. Miller

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Working titles of the film were I Was a Prisoner in Korea and Those Reported Missing. The film was copyrighted twice on the same date, once under the title I Was a Prisoner in Korea and under the release title The Bamboo Prison. The CBCS lists Robert Francis' character as "Sgt. Bill Rand," but he is referred to as "John" throughout the film. The truce mentioned in the film refers to the cease-fire agreement reached in 1953 and signed at P'anmunjom, which provided for a prisoner exchange. The Bamboo Prison was the first production of Bryan Foy's Yof Corp. [Foy spelled backwards].
       As noted in a December 22, 1954 Daily Variety article, a column in the Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor written by Dale Francis criticized The Bamboo Prison for its depiction of a Communist agent disguised as a priest. Francis complained that the film priest delivers speeches attributed to real-life heroic chaplain Father Kapaun. Foy reportedly responded by pointing out that the picture was made with the assistance of the Rt. Rev. Msgr. John J. Devlin and that the Catholic Legion of Decency had awarded the film an "A-2" rating. Francis' column prompted a call by an American Legion post in Kansas to halt the film's release.
       A February 1, 1955 Daily Variety news item indicates that Memphis censors banned The Bamboo Prison, calling it "most unpatriotic" and "(not) a good picture for our young people to see." One week later, the Better Films Bureau of Memphis challenged the ban. In April 1955, Columbia threatened to file suit against the Memphis Board of Censors. Memphis' chief censor, Lloyd T. Binford, attempted unsuccessfully to have portions of the film deleted before ultimately reversing the ban on The Bamboo Prison the day after Columbia threatened legal action.