“The Wooden Horse” is an extremely British Old School war movie. It is based on a novel by Eric Williams which I can remember reading as a teenager. He wrote the screenplay. The movie is set in a German POW camp (Stalag Luft III) in 1943. The camp is inhabited by mostly British airmen. There is a tunnel going out from the washroom, but it is far from completion and far from a sure thing. If only a tunnel could begin closer to the wire.
John (Anthony Steel) and Pete (Leo Genn) are pondering this dilemma when John notices some prisoners doing leap frog. (The only appearance of leap frog in the entire history of war movies.) He adds leap frog to Trojan Horse to get vaulting horse. The escape committee reluctantly agrees and we have ourselves a prison escape movie. The first bit of suspense is John and Pete going out at night to steal lumber from a conveniently destroyed building in the camp. This is the only WWII POW movie I have seen that has the guard dogs roaming the camp after dark. Why didn’t all the other ones think of that? Seems like a great way to reduce midnight forays. They use the wood to construct a vaulting box (which you would think would be such an unusual item that the Germans might ask where the wood came from).
The idea is to get a cadre of friends to spend hours vaulting while either John or Pete digs the tunnel after being transported inside it to the site of the hole. The movie handles the “what if a klutz tips over the horse” conundrum with a nifty little fake-out. The film goes through the rollercoaster ride of crises. Crisis 1 – a cave in that leaves a visible hole in the camp yard. Crisis 2 – they are making slower progress than needed. Crisis 3 - The Germans raid the sand disposal site. Once those three are averted, we get a montage complete with calendar to advance us to the escape.
John and Pete allow their main vaulter Philip (David Tomlinson) to escape with them, but he insists on separating after the wire even though the producers tell him they don’t have enough film to follow two stories. Once they are out John and Pete head to the rail station and take a train to the coast where the plan is to hitch a ride on a Swedish ship. Crisis 4 - they get chased away when they try to board a ship. Luckily John speaks several languages and they hook up with some French workers who are quasi-Resistance. Crisis 5 – Pete is tailed by a Gestapo-looking sinister dude. Surprise, he’s not as evil as he seems.
John and Pete end up on a Danish ship with their patron Sigmund. Apparently musical scores are not forbidden in Denmark because the moment they step ashore, the score kicks in. A stop off at his sister’s apartment allows us to ogle a hot Danish chick. John and Pete are chaste, but my eyes weren’t. They will have to go by fishing boat to Sweden, but first… Crisis 6 – John and Pete versus a German sentry.
“The Wooden Horse” is a nice little movie, but it is not special. I would have to put it is the middle of the pack in the subgenre of POW movies. The acting is fine especially from the leads. Nobody is flashy and there is no scene chewing. They are all properly British. However, the Germans are not your typical sinister, competent foes. The commandant looks like an accountant and is neither malevolent (“Hart’s War”, “Stalag 17”) nor a noble fellow knight of the air (“The Great Escape”). He does not play a major role and there is no bête noire of a camp guard. A bonus for the ladies is John often has his shirt off. Kudos to the horse which is stoically wooden and gets a rousing round of applause from the prisoners when it is hauled off to wherever the Germans took vaulting horses that aided escapes. I assume an inescapable camp where they have placed all the scheming gymnastics apparatuses (apperati?).
The direction is very straight forward. The cinematography does not stand out other than in the quick-cut, varying perspectives of the sentry fight scene. Where the direction goes off reservation is in the score. There are long stretches where there is no music setting the mood. This is commendable, but might partly explain why the movie has a suspenseless feel to it. There is also a curious lack of the British humor you usually find in their war films. The best moment is when a German guard hears some classical music playing on a record player and comments “Beethoven, he’s a good German”. A Brit retorts “Yeah, he’s dead.” Speaking of which, the dialogue is sparse and unflorid. The movie is not cloyingly patriotic. It gets where it is going on the strength of the tale with few flourishes.
The set is German POW camp lite. Unrealistically pristine. Check out those cushy pillows and the pajamas laid out by their maids. Not to mention the civilian-like grooming. These are the cleanest, best-dressed, well-coiffed prisoners in war movie history. Even after coming out of the tunnel John and Pete are not grimy and their hair is perfect. The underground scenes are a highlight. It is not an elaborate set-up like in “The Great Escape”, but appropriately claustrophobic.
The plot does flow well. It efficiently takes us through the usual arc. Idea – approval – plan – execution with problems solved – escape with one huge dilemma – journey to freedom with roadblocks. The drawback is there is a lack of suspense for the most part. The movie whiffs on several opportunities. For instance, after introducing the concept of a German shephard menacingly patrolling the camp after dark, the prisoners easily distract the dog for the lumber run. Another example is when John has to spend a night in the tunnel. The movie glosses over what must have been a terrifying experience. Basically, none of the crises is edge of the seat. There is never any doubt that John and Pete will make it. There is some doubt about the fate of Philip, but you are left waiting for a post script since the film fails to follow him once they exit the camp. Hint: this is not the type of movie that is looking for an expendable.
Classic or Antique? Somewhere in between. Let’s call it Classtique. It is entertaining and a must see for those into the subgenre, but not in the upper tier of those films. I don’t think it attempted to be.
grade = C