Tuesday, May 04, 2010

FOR FANS OF "THE GREAT ESCAPE", I GIVE YOU "THE WOODEN HORSE" (1950). Surely this must have been a strong influence on the later, more famous and lighter-in-tone film. Only 5 years after the cessation of hostilities, London Films brought us this unsensationalized and rather realistic portrayal of British POWs attempting to escape from a German camp. The plot (based on actual events) follows the "duty" (as the opening text states) of every British prisoner to attempt escape at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the Germans have placed the prisoners' barracks so far away from the perimeter fence that any tunnel would have to be extremely long and take an inordinate amount of time. The POWs have, in fact, been in the process of digging a tunnel but have shown little progress for the time involved. One prisoner, however, flashes upon a moment of inspiration while observing several men playing leapfrog and shares his idea with the "escape committee": that is, a re-working of the Trojan Horse. Only this time, the "horse" in question will be a gymnastics wooden "horse" which the men will leap over. All the time, a hidden man will hide in the hollow centre of the wooden horse (which will be placed in the open activities yard much MUCH closer to the perimeter of the prison camp) and start digging a tunnel underneath the horse. At the close of the day's "calisthenics", a signal will be given for the hidden man to wrap up his work and recover the tunnel opening with buried sandbags and the dry surface dirt he has reserved for the purpose of camouflage.
In any film of this kind, the suspense rests on the many close calls the POWs risk of German discovery and their ingenious outthinking of their captors. Eventually, of course, the tunnel breaks through to the other side and a handful of three men make their escape. This, however, is only the beginning as they must somehow negotiate a hostile Germany and find some Swedish or French sympathizers to help them escape to neutral Sweden. Director Jack (A TOWN CALLED ALICE) Lee keeps things moving at a brisk clip and maintains audience interest throughout. The cast of THE WOODEN HORSE is typically packed with top British character actors. Leo Genn is the ostensible star of the film; he is perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in QUO VADIS and also appeared in the British medical mystery GREEN FOR DANGER and as Starbuck in 1956's MOBY DICK. Genn is ably assisted by minor British "matinee idol" Anthony Steel who, in later life, made appearances in the final Amicus (in everything but name) horror flick THE MONSTER CLUB and the Agatha Christie adaptation of THE MIRROR CRACK'D. The third escapee is played by David Tomlinson; better known and beloved by Disney fans for his uptight Mr. Banks in MARY POPPINS and his dotty turn in BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS. Haunted-looking Michael Goodliffe (an actual British POW during the war) is one of the supporting characters: he is best known to film fans as the designer of the ill-fated ship Titanic in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. Other Goodliffe role include Powell & Pressburger's superb WWII home front film THE SMALL BACK ROOM, THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE, CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, science-fiction extravaganza THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE and horror films like Michael Powell's doomed PEEPING TOM, THE GORGON and the final Hammer Horror TO THE DEVIL - A DAUGHTER adapted (and butchered) from Dennis Wheatley. Also rounding out the supporting cast are Peter Burton (the first "Q" in a James Bond film DR. NO) as well as two future film directors: David Greene and Bryan Forbes. Greene began as an actor but went on to win Emmy Awards for directing ROOTS, RICH MAN POOR MAN and FRIENDLY FIRE for television as well as an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and my much-beloved 1975 TV movie THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO starring Richard Chamberlain. Bryan Forbes also was a busy actor in such films as THE SMALL BACK ROOM, THE COLDITZ STORY and the classic caper film THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN as well as sci-fi outings in QUATERMASS 2: ENEMY FROM SPACE and SATELLITE IN THE SKY before going on to direct such films as SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT and THE STEPFORD WIVES. Sinister-faced Anthony Dawson appears in a small role as a snivelling little rat-faced git (his film Cv includes THE QUEEN OF SPADES, Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER with Boris Karloff, Hammer's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and the aforementioned TV COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO) while Peter "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" Finch has a one-scene cameo as a wounded Australian POW in the aforementioned hospital room scene.
Oh yes, I have to mention my favourite line in the film and the only laugh-out-loud moment in the whole proceedings. In the prison camp hospital ward, the German warders play phonograph records of Beethoven. As a German officer is leaving, he turns to the British POWs and states proudly: "Beethoven! Here's a good German!" Whereas immediately a British voice cheekily shouts back: "Yeah, he's DEAD!!!" My one qualm about the film is that the end snuck up on me rather suddenly. Of course, this is a truism in the entertainment world: "always leave them wanting more" and I did find myself wishing it had gone on a little longer. In the final analysis, I am not really predisposed towards the World War II prisoner-of-war movie. As is the case with any other genre, I only like it if it's a very good movie. THE GREAT ESCAPE, of course, is one. THE WOODEN HORSE is another.

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