Colditz Story, The (1954 with John Mills and Eric Portman)

UK / 1954

Director: Guy Hamilton
Writer: Guy Hamilton, Ivan Foxwell, William Douglas Home (based on the book by PR Reid)

Cast: John Mills, Eric Portman, Christopher Rhodes, Lionel Jeffries, Bryan Forbes, Ian Carmichael, Richard Wattis, Frederick Valk

“The real importance of The Colditz Story ,” director Guy Hamilton once explained, “was that it was essentially a comedy about something that, up until that point, you could not make fun of – POWs. I was absolutely determined to show that Colditz was exceptional and could be very funny.” The American TV series Hogan’s Heroes took the concept even further, but Hamilton’s film also manages to capture the drama that went on within (and sometimes underneath) the walls of the legendary Saxony prison. Colditz Castle housed the most persistent Allied troublemakers during World War II, with 300 POWs attempting to break out during that time (31 were to be successful): The Colditz Story is based on the book by Captain Pat Reid, an Englishman who was the prison’s unofficial Escape Officer from 1940-42 and who recorded the tragi-comic realities of life behind bars during the most turbulent of times in modern history.

Although the Germans house many different nationalities in Colditz, all are united with one aim: escape. As well as the English entourage – led by Pat Reid (John Mills) and Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman) – there are various plans by French, Polish and Dutch prisoners to abscond, with moral among the prisoners boosted whenever there’s any success. Even though the officers are aware of the watchful gaze of the German commandant (Frederick Valk) and his men, Reid unveils an audacious plan to escape right under the Germans’ noses. All of the incidents depicted within the film are true, which leaves you marvelling at the ingenuity of the POWs involved.

The infamous Leipzig castle was recreated at Shepperton Studios, but otherwise everything is remarkably authentic in this gripping movie that balances the black comedy of Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 with similarly-themed British war movies such as The Wooden Horse . An ensemble cast deliver routinely excellent performances, and Hamilton directs with a flair that later landed him four James Bond movies. Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell called the film “good-humoured and often uproariously funny”, while the Daily Express noted, “There have been prisoner-of-war and escape stories before, but this is superior in performance, in background and in intention.” A recommended form of tunnel vision.

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