10 great prisoner-of-war films

Celebrating the endurance and ingenuity of soldiers in captivity, movies about prisoners of war make for compelling cinema. We round up 10 of the best.

18 April 2013

By Sam Wigley

Captured (1959)

“This film is RESTRICTED” announces the opening title card of the 1959 drama Captured. Produced for the British military to help understand and prepare for the methods of interrogation and coercion that soldiers were subject to as prisoners of war in Korea, John Krish’s drama was bound by the official secrets act and seen only in the presence of high-ranking officials.

Made without the need to bear a sensitive civilian audience in mind, its depiction of the traumas of capture by the enemy – and new and terrifying means of torture, including stress positions and waterboarding – make the film a stark contrast with the war films shown commercially in cinemas during the 1950s.

In the postwar years, the prisoner-of-war film became a genre almost unto itself, but to watch films like The Colditz Story (1955) or The Great Escape (1963), for all their moments of terror and tragedy, is to delight in captivity in times of war as a wonderful game for boys, an endless Houdini challenge to slip through the enemy’s fingers. Often based on true stories of escape, they have the viewer marvelling at the ingenuity and seemingly unbreakable spirit of imprisoned soldiers.

Now available to the public for the first time, as the latest in the BFI Flipside range’s rediscoveries from forgotten corners of British cinema, Captured sits well beyond the perimeter of this mainstream cinema tradition, even as it celebrates the same tenets of resistance and solidarity.

But narratives of escape and endurance continue to fascinate us, and over time numerous prisoner-of-war films have successfully tunnelled their way into the canon of film classics. To mark the release of Captured, we present 10 of the best. Instead, it points forward to later entries in the PoW subgenre, where the trauma and psychological duress of wartime imprisonment come to the fore. Televised horrors from the Vietnam war made simple tales of military heroism increasingly difficult to swallow, and films like The Deer Hunter (1977) responded with harrowing drama that hammered home the toll that captivity and maltreatment take on the human spirit.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir

La Grande Illusion (1937)

As the new French biopic Renoir makes clear, if anything separated the artistic temperament of director Jean Renoir from his painter father, Pierre-Auguste, it was his experiences as an aviator in the first world war, which gave him a much more politicised eye for beauty than the Impressionist ever had.

Coming toward the end of his extraordinary run of films in the 1930s, La Grande Illusion is a landmark pacifist film about two French airmen, a working-class lieutenant (Jean Gabin) and an aristocratic captain (Pierre Fresnay), who are captured by the Germans and taken to a fortress prison run by monocled Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). An early example of the prisoner-of-war film, Renoir’s masterpiece uses the prison as a microcosm to reveal kindred spirits between men of the same class, regardless of nationality – with the French captain finding more common ground with his German opposite than with his proletarian countrymen. Renoir returned to the subject of PoWs for his 1962 film Le caporal épinglé.

Stalag 17 (1953)

Director: Billy Wilder

Stalag 17 (1953) poster

Billy Wilder was among the many Austrian- or German-born émigré directors who fled to Hollywood during the rise of the Nazi party in Europe. Though best known for his comedies (Some Like It Hot, 1959; The Apartment, 1960) and dark melodramas (Double Indemnity, 1944; Sunset Blvd., 1950), he also made a couple of excursions into the war film. First came Five Graves to Cairo (1943), set amid Rommel’s North African campaign, then – in 1953 – perhaps the definitive PoW film of Hollywood’s golden age: Stalag 17.

Set in a Luftwaffe prison camp in 1944, Wilder’s film stars William Holden (who won the Oscar for best actor) as Sefton, a cynical and antisocial American inmate whom the other prisoners come to suspect is a stool pigeon for their German captors. Interestingly, just as Renoir had cast silent film director Erich von Stroheim as his camp commandant in La Grande Illusion, Wilder chose director Otto Preminger to play Stalag 17’s cruel overseer, Oberst von Scherbach. A wry comment on the authoritarian nature of directing films?

The Colditz Story (1955)

Director: Guy Hamilton

The Colditz Story (1955) poster

The 1950s were peak time for the prisoner-of-war film as a genre, with filmmakers capitalising on the many tales of heroism in captivity that came to light after the second world war. Nowhere more so than in Britain, where true stories of daring escape attempts in prison camps at Stalag Luft III and Colditz Castle became the basis for a string of classics, including The Wooden Horse (1950), Reach for the Sky (1956) and The Colditz Story.

The latter stars John Mills and Eric Portman, those stalwarts of stiff-upper-lip British war films, as two captives at Colditz, famously the PoW camp where the Nazis sent the most incorrigible repeat escapees. Directed by Guy Hamilton, who would later make four entries in the James Bond series, the film excitingly documents the various attempts at breakout from the imposing fortress by the multi-national prisoners, presenting prison-camp life as a continual game of wit and cunning – an endless challenge to get one over on the ‘Jerries’.

A Man Escaped (1956)

Director: Robert Bresson

A Man Escaped (1956)

Critic David Thomson has pointed out that the title of Robert Bresson’s 1956 classic A Man Escaped gives away the ending. In these spoiler-wary times, such a showing of cards might seem unforgivable, but – despite the truly nail-biting suspense of its final section – Bresson’s film is a less a thriller than a concentrated study of the human soul in captivity.

Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a French resistance fighter who was captured and incarcerated at Fort Montluc in Lyon during the second world war, it’s a film whose drama is told in a mass of small details – the expressions passing across the face of non-professional actor François Leterrier, the objects that take on an important significance in the sparse cell, the offscreen sounds which tell us (and our protagonist) so much about the space beyond these four bare walls. “There are books that say the ‘style’ is ‘rigorously spare,’ and you know what they mean,” Thomson writes. “But it is a symphony of a face in concentration and in excelsis. No effect is as special.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean’s 1957 best picture Oscar-winner marked the culmination of the run of British 1950s PoW dramas, moving the subgenre from black and white into resplendent colour and from the dank fortress prisons of Nazi Europe to the intense tropical heat of the jungles of south-east Asia.

Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes), it’s the story of an English colonel, Nicholson (Alec Guinness, who won the Oscar for best actor), held captive in a prison camp in Thailand, who’s forced to oversee the building of a bridge by his Japanese captors, only for him to become dangerously caught up in his own pride in the project. Four years after he played the suspicious inmate in Stalag 17, William Holden plays an American escapee who’s commanded to return to the camp and lead a mission to blow up the bridge. The film is in many ways the apex of the British stiff upper lip tradition, while a scene in which Nicholson is punished with a spell without food or water in an iron box nicknamed ‘the oven’ anticipates the cruelties of war depicted in PoW films like The Deer Hunter and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1982). 

The Great Escape (1963)

Director: John Sturges

The Great Escape (1963)

Like The Bridge on the River Kwai before it, the 172-minute The Great Escape benefits from a rousing, whistle-along theme tune, helping this star-studded epic about a real-life break out from Stalag Luft III during the second world war become a fixture of family TV viewing ever since.

Director John Sturges had recently made The Magnificent Seven (1960), so knew a thing or two about rollicking ensemble adventure movies, and his entry into the PoW canon stands as the epitome of the war-is-fun action film. Working on no less than three escape tunnels, labelled Tom, Dick and Harry, are the likes of James Garner, Donald Pleasence, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen. McQueen plays Captain Hilts, an inmate whose irreverence towards German authority repeatedly lands him in solitary confinement, earning him the nickname ‘The Cooler King’. In the film’s most famous stunt, Hilts must gun his motorcycle over a huge barbed wire fence to avoid recapture – a moment which helped to define McQueen’s brand of rugged, macho heroism.

The Round-up (1966)

Director: Miklós Jancsó

The Round-up (1966)

When we think of prisoner-of-war films we tend to think of the second world war or Vietnam, of Steve McQueen bouncing his baseball in ‘the cooler’ in The Great Escape or Jean Gabin leading a Hun-defying chorus of ‘La Marseillaise’ in La Grande Illusion.

Miklós Jancsó’s 1966 film The Round-up is something rather different. It’s set on a desolate Hungarian plain in the mid 19th century, where a prison camp has been set up to detain suspected followers of Lajos Kossuth, who led an unsuccessful revolution against the Habsburg empire in 1848. Under the watchful gaze of Jancó’s labyrinthine tracking shots, which frame the action in ever-shifting geometric patterns, a band of prisoners are subjected to a variety of tricks and torture techniques in order to rout out the identity of a notorious guerrilla and his gang. Highly acclaimed on its initial release, The Round-up established Jancsó as a distinctive voice in world cinema, his films defined less by character or story and more by shape, space and movement.

The Deer Hunter (1977)

Director: Michael Cimino

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Comparatively little of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is set within a prison camp, but those distressing scenes colour everything that comes after. For second-time viewers, it also lends a tragic taint to the magnificent opening scenes at a wedding in a Pennsylvania mining town, where boyhood friends Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are celebrating one last night in town before military service in Vietnam.

In a brutal narrative shift, the elegiac opulence of the wedding sequence gives way to scenes in a riverside PoW camp, where the three friends are held in bamboo cages and later forced to play Russian roulette by their sadistic Vietcong captors. Hollywood had been slow to tackle the controversial subject of the Vietnam war, but garlanded The Deer Hunter with Oscars, including the award for best picture – though many viewers took issue with the film’s extremely negative depiction of the Vietcong.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Empire of the Sun (1987) poster

Whether having Indiana Jones take on the Nazis or restaging the invasion of Normandy for Saving Private Ryan (1998), Steven Spielberg has often returned to the subject of the second world war – not least with Schindler’s List (1993), perhaps Hollywood’s definitive treatment of the experience of the Nazi concentration camps.

Based on the memoirs of J.G. Ballard, his 1987 film Empire of the Sun tells the story of a young British boy, Jim Graham (Christian Bale), who loses contact with his parents during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and is later held captive in a civilian internment camp. A child of privilege, who has grown up in a huge English-style mansion in a suburb of Shanghai, Jim’s life is stripped of its luxury as he is forced to learn how to survive and fend for himself. In one tense sequence, Jim earns the respect of his fellow prisoners, including American ship steward Basie (John Malkovich), by attempting to creep out beyond the perimeter wire without being spotted by their Japanese warders.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Director: Werner Herzog

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Two decades after his star-making turn as the child protagonist of Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale found himself once again incarcerated behind enemy lines in Werner Herzog’s Vietnam survival drama Rescue Dawn. It’s based on the life of German-born US pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down in Laos during an undercover mission in the early stages of the Vietnam war and held captive in the jungle.

Herzog had already treated the story in documentary form in 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but returned to the subject for his first Hollywood film, turning in an adventure film that is rousingly heroic yet sprinkled with typically Herzogian touches. The physical and psychological damage done to the inmates during their time in the camp are harrowingly documented, but the eventual escape downriver through the jungle (shades of Aguirre, Wrath of God, 1972) are as thrilling and immediate as anything in the PoW movie subgenre.

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