Cast & Crew
Adventures of British POWs in the German maximum security prison in Saxony's Colditz Castle during World War II.
The Colditz Story
It's comical that so many escapes occurred at what was supposed to be a top-security camp, and The Colditz Story capitalizes on this absurdity by leavening its suspense episodes with wry English wit. Still, there's a fair degree of reality at the story's core. The picture opens by asserting that every incident it depicts is true, although events have been reshuffled and all names have been changed except that of P.R. Reid, an actual British major whose eponymous 1952 book inspired the 1955 production. Reid is the film's main character, played by John Mills with his usual pleasant demeanor, and the producers employed the real-life Reid as technical adviser.
The first shots of The Colditz Story have an intensity that doesn't hint at the frequently droll nature of the story. Freshly arrived at the camp, Reid and another captured officer are being marched to their quarters by military guards, accompanied by music that thunders with ominous overtones. But the mood lightens as soon as the guards depart. Making friends with the Allied captives already ensconced in the castle, the newcomers immediately start participating in the prison's universal pastime - thinking up ways to break out. They also learn that a surprising problem has arisen. So many creative prisoners are concocting so many imaginative escape ideas that different groups constantly bump into one another in the middle of their operations. On one such occasion, an unsuccessful French effort brings a rush of guards that forestalls a British breakout planned for the same night; in another snafu, two separate groups dig parallel tunnels, each team ignorant of the other until the two tunnels abruptly cave in on each other, greatly embarrassing all concerned.
Deciding to impose some order on the situation, the senior British officer, Colonel Richmond, sets up a system whereby each nationality - British, French, Dutch, Polish - appoints an "escape officer" who coordinates timing and other details, thus preventing the traffic accidents that have become so common. The story moves toward its climax when Scottish prisoner Mac McGill devises a plan whereby he and his partners will walk out of Colditz disguised as German soldiers. McGill gathers his team and starts fabricating phony uniforms, and Reid, who's been serving as the British escape officer, decides to join in the scheme. But the oldest and wisest English soldier, Richmond, sees a fatal flaw in the plan: Mac is the tallest man in the camp, and he'll certainly be recognized despite his disguise. Will this problem be solved? Will the plan have to be abandoned? The suspense builds....
Prison-escape movies have a long and varied pedigree. For just a few examples, William Holden fled Stalag 17 in 1953; Clint Eastwood made an Escape from Alcatraz in 1979; Christian Bale fled from Laotian captors in Rescue Dawn in 2006; the men of Hogan's Heroes dodged Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz on a weekly basis from 1965 to 1971; and Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece Grand Illusion is one of cinema's most profound meditations on the fundamental nature of war, freedom, and humanity itself. The Colditz Story doesn't rank with the genre's great achievements, but it's far from the most frivolous, if only because its story could have been even more extravagant without straying from the historical record. At the end of the war, for instance, liberators found a hand-made glider stashed in the castle's attic, ready for use if the liberators didn't arrive when expected.
The Colditz Story isn't as realistic as it claims, however. Not many Nazi guards could have been as utterly oblivious as the ones we see here - the most visible one, a flabby buffoon, could have been the model for Schultz in Hogan's Heroes - and I doubt that conditions in the camp were as neat, clean, and relaxing as those depicted in the film. Not even solitary confinement seems particularly daunting, since several men are tossed into the same cell at once and left alone to amuse themselves with jokes and conversation. In these areas I have to agree with New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who wrote that the film is "full of the most doubtful devices" and that solitary "looks no worse than study hall. Indeed, not as bad."
But the picture's lack of gritty detail is compensated for by the eye-pleasing light and shadow of Gordon Dines's artful cinematography; the film was shot with obvious care at Shepperton Studios in England, and exterior views of the actual Colditz Castle provide stunning interludes from time to time. The cast is appealing as well. In addition to Mills as the hero, standouts include Eric Portman as dignified Richmond and Christopher Rhodes as burly McGill, plus Richard Wattis and the gifted Ian Carmichael as a pair of amiable prisoners. Present in secondary roles are Theodore Bikel, the acclaimed actor and folk singer, and future film director Bryan Forbes.
My familiarity with Colditz Castle comes mainly from this movie, but my girlfriend remembers that when she was a child in England in the 1970s, her grandmother would sometimes discourage bad behavior by saying, "Be careful or you'll go to Colditz!" She also recalls a commonplace game called Colditz, in which kids pretended to escape from Germans without really knowing what Germans were or why they needed to be escaped from. Americans may not have associations like these, but The Colditz Story is an enjoyable way to learn a little more about the Second World War, the timeless appeal of freedom, and the camaraderie of soldiers imprisoned in a righteous cause....and have a few laughs as a bonus.
Director: Guy Hamilton
Producer: Ivan Foxwell
Screenplay: Guy Hamilton and Ivan Foxwell; dialogue by William Douglas Home; based on the novel The Colditz Story by P.R. Reid
Cinematographer: Gordon Dines
Film Editing: Peter Mayhew
Art Direction: Vetchinsky
Music: Francis Chagrin
With: John Mills (Pat Reid), Eric Portman (Colonel Richmond), Frederick Valk (Kommandant), Denis Shaw (Priem), Lionel Jeffries (Harry Tyler), Christopher Rhodes ("Mac" McGill), Richard Wattis (Richard Gordon), Ian Carmichael (Robin Cartwright), Bryan Forbes (Jimmy Winslow), Theodore Bikel (Vandy), Eugene Deckers (La Tour), Anton Diffring (Fischer).
by David Sterritt