I have a very nasty head cold. My laptop refuses to work (it’s time to dump it); and I’m blogging on an Android tablet with considerable difficulty. But it’s Veterans Day (duly noted at my own blog, with deepest respect); and I wanted to comment for PJ Lifestyle on some favorite movies of mine that focus on servicemen.
For the life of me, only two POW movies come to mind. I know the breadth of the veteran experience cannot possibly be reflected through POW stories alone, but such stories are rife with emotions in conflict; and that can make for some very good movies. And assuming that you’ve already seen The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai, I thought I’d suggest a couple of titles with which you may not be as familiar – including a 1953 classic. Strangely enough, neither movie was directed by an American, but the lead characters in both movies are American. Both directors are legends in their own right, too.
The older movie is – well – a dramedy of sorts set in a WWII POW camp: Stalag 17, starring the inimitable William Holden with a very young Peter Graves (the original Jim Phelps from Mission: Impossible)
– and even a young Donald Pleasance, (better known as Dr. Loomis on the original Halloween). William Holden went on to win an Oscar for his work on Stalag 17. And it was well-deserved.
Stalag’s plot is very much about an escape plan and keeping that plan secret; but it does have several light moments and silly characters, plus incidental comedy resulting from the Allied prisoners plotting to fool their German captors (you’ll find more than one parallel with the 60’s TV series Hogan’s Heroes). Director Billy Wilder, who was behind some of the most iconic American movies to come out of Hollywood despite hailing from an Austro-Hungarian town that now lies within Polish borders, co-wrote and produced. You might have already seen several titles by Wilder. Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, and even darker fare like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard (also starring Holden) were all directed and written by Wilder. The film is in black and white, but don’t let that deter you. There’s not a thing about the movie that feels old. And you’ll love the dialogue. They don’t write them like they used to – and few people had an ear for American dialect like the immigrant Mr. Wilder.
The other POW movie I’d like to recommend is a more recent title by a director with a long career: Rescue Dawn, directed by German filmmaker Werner Herzog. I must confess this is the only movie by Herzog I’ve ever seen, even though I’ve been reading about his production exploits for years. But with films such as Fitzcarraldo (a true story about perhaps the most determined Irish entrepreneur in history) and the documentary Grizzly Man under his belt, I can only conclude that Herzog likes to make movies about people of great passion and commitment who are not easily deterred. Rescue Dawn is precisely that kind of movie. And it’s also based on a true story: the true adventures of German-American Vietnam vet and POW Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Vietnam while flying a mission for the U.S. Navy in 1966.
Dengler is portrayed by Christian Bale with a humanity that blends the character’s vulnerability and love of freedom in a brilliant fashion. You know that Dengler refuses to be a mere captive from the moment he gets shot down. And you know he will do something about his capitivity, even if everyone around him dismisses his plans as impossible. Will he succeed? Even if he escapes, can he survive the jungle and be located by his U.S. Navy buddies? Steve Zahn co-stars. No Chuck Norris-led team of commandos shows up to help on this one. These guys are on their own.
You might be wondering if you can trust a German director to tell an American POW tale, but Herzog knows the material. He directed a documentary about Dieter Dengler about a decade before this movie was finally released in the states.
UPDATE: A couple of corrections: Donald Pleasance did not co-star in Stalag 17. He was – however – part of the ensemble cast of The Great Escape. Also, in my prior post on Blade Runner, I stated that the movie was based on the short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick. The source material is actually a novel. Thanks to the commenters who brought these inaccuracies to my attention.