“The Colditz Story” is one of a number of British WWII POW movies. Many consider it the best of its subgenre. It was released in 1955 and was directed by Guy Hamilton (“The Battle of Britain”). It is based on the novel by Pat Reid who was a prisoner in Colditz Castle (or Oflag IV-C) and escaped. At the beginning of the film we are told that all events are true except names have been changed and some events are related out of their historical context.
The movie opens in 1940 in Germany. British prisoners arrive at a castle that already houses over one hundred Polish captives. For a maximum security prison, it seems pretty cushy. When the British commanding officer Col. Richmond (Eric Portman) meets with the typical monacled Nazi commandant, he is told that all the best escapers have been placed in his camp. It’s a speech similar to that given by Von Luger in "The Great Escape". By the way, there is also a disposing of dirt via pants legs scene similar to TGE.
With various nationalities imprisoned, problems arise. When French and British tunnels accidentally run into each other, Richmond creates an escape committee comprising all the nationalities and puts Reid (John Mills) in charge. Soon after, the previously aloof Richmond disguises himself as a German officer to relieve a guard who is watching the area where a tunnel is due to come up. The sudden change of Richmond to enthusiastic conspirator is unrealistic. The tunnelers are immediately caught and given one month in solitary.
In another scene seemingly “borrowed” by “The Great Escape”, a prisoner escapes in a “blitz” by being ensacked and thrown into the back of a truck. A Frenchman gets away by vaulting over the barbed wire fence. Supposedly these escapes actually took place. Reid and his best buddy Mac (Christopher Rhodes) plan to escape dressed as German officers. When Richmond puts the kibosh on the attempt, Mac loses it and tries to climb the fence and gets shot like Ives in TGE.
The climatic escape takes place during a musical revue staged by the prisoners. This gives the prisoners the chance to sing the obligatory song required in all 1950s movies. Will Reid and Winslow (Bryan Forbes) make it to Switzerland?
There is some historical accuracy in the film. There was a prison in Colditz Castle and the Germans did put all their bad eggs in one basket. Probably not surprisingly considering the quality of the escapees, Oflag IV-C had the most successful escapes of any German stalag (56). Soon after arriving, Reid bribed a guard to look the other way, but the guard ratted him out and he went to solitary. He was appointed Escape Officer. His escape was nothing like as shown in the film. He and three others cut through the bars of the kitchen window, climbed onto a roof, crossed a well-lit courtyard, entered a basement, crawled through an air shaft, and exited through a park. They broke into pairs and Reid and his partner, disguised as Flemish workmen, travelled by train to the Swiss border and crossed to freedom.
The movie is well acted and well filmed. The problem is it does not ring true. The prison is not menacing and the Germans are incompetent. The commandant threatens death to anyone who tries to escape, but none gets worse than solitary. As usual for many a movie of this type, the movie prison camp is depicted as fantasy camp for actors wanting to play prisoner. There is no pressing reason to want to escape from the camp. There is also no pressing reason for the British to give up their sense of humor. The various escapes depicted are so silly that I guess they must be true.
I know this movie is remembered fondly, but the fact is that it is just not very good and certainly is not special. Although it could have sued “The Great Escape” for plagiarism, TGE is a much better film.
grade = C
the acrobatic escape