Posted by Moira Finnie on February 10, 2010
Captured! (1933-Roy Del Ruth) is a Warner Brothers film that was advertised in overheated ad copy of the time as a “cavalcade of human passions in the maelstrom of mankind’s great adventure”. This little known pre-code movie never reaches those hyperbolic proportions, and has largely been forgotten, but, despite its strengths and flaws, I suspect that the situations depicted among men isolated in the time of war may have had an unacknowledged impact on later depictions of POW camps on film, influencing everything from La Grande Illusion (1937-Jean Renoir) to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943-Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) to Stalag 17 (1953-Billy wilder) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957-David Lean). The movie is an uneven look at the erosion of accepted values in the 20th century, and it is also an interesting glimpse of the changing public attitudes toward war, influenced by a rise of pacifism following World War I.
Captured! is based on the novel, “Fellow Prisoners” by Sir Philip Gibbs, a British journalist who battled censorship and documented the battles and the after-effects of the conflict in a series of non-fiction books published during and after the First World War. Forgotten today, his words on The Great War, found in now mouldering copies of The Soul of War, Now It Can Be Told, and The Realities of War, explored the tragic inner workings, errors and misconceptions of the governments behind the disaster that we have come to call the First World War, with a special emphasis on the individuals caught up in what he called “the great machine of slaughter.” Gibbs, a liberal man whose background was lower middle class rather than from the elite, wrote government-censored dispatches for British newspapers that were distributed throughout the world via news services during the war, even while he was also in attendance at meetings with wartime leaders. After one such dinner, British Prime Minister Lloyd George concluded, after listening to Gibbs‘ account of the progress of the war, that “if people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow.”
Pouring out his knowledge of the war in his postwar writing made Gibbs an enormously famous man in the English speaking world*, even while he remained somewhat controversial for revealing how old-fashioned notions of the nature of war in the age of technology and a chilling disregard for the lives of the men in the war actually helped to prolong the disaster on all sides. Just as the in-depth reporting of Neil Sheehan for The New York Times and in later books helped to reveal the fatal tangle of misapprehensions behind the Vietnam War, Gibbs helped to shape public opinion in his day. The fictional version of a POW camp that Gibbs wrote about in his novel “Fellow Prisoners” was culled from the author’s continued research into the experiences of the men who had lived it, and the glimmer of reality shines through the romantic gloss that Hollywood felt obliged to ladle on in some scenes in this movie. Warner Brothers, the most topical of Hollywood studios, was already well known for hard-hitting realism found in films about WWI veterans such as I Am a Prisoner From a Chain Gang (1932-Mervyn LeRoy) and Heroes for Sale (1933-William Wellman), and they were determined to shake what has been described as a persistent “image as a penny-pinching studio specializing in schlock.” Associating themselves with famous individuals with a “veneer of class” such as Gibbs, was part of their efforts to enhance their standing, as was their acquisition of the services of actor Leslie Howard, then considered one of the leading romantic actors of his day.
Directed by the under-rated, company director Roy Del Ruth, (seen at left) who made several seminal pre-code films, including Blonde Crazy (1931) and Employees Entrance (1933), crafted a somewhat unwieldy but fascinating movie from the script credited to screenwriter Edward Chodorov, teetering between a very realistic look at the physical and psychological conditions in an overcrowded prison camp and the romantic complications of an unlikely plot twist that almost ruins the movie, which is made memorable by individual performances and a relentless fatalism and almost noirish mood. Leslie Howard, who privately described his film image as “a load of nonsense”, definitely had mixed feelings about his film career and particularly his image as a matinee idol on stage and screen. Playing “Captain Fred Allison”, an Oxford-educated officer in a German POW camp, the actor, an actual WWI veteran who was invalided out of the British Army after being severely shell-shocked in 1916, managed to convey a convincingly anguished character whose tenuous ties to the world outside the battle zone are linked to his illusions about the woman (Margaret Lindsay) he married two years before, having “met her, married her, and left for the front, all in six days.” Howard is seen often with a dishevelled appearance, and speaking in a flat, muted voice, creating a character whose air of disengagement indicates a man who has joined the living dead in spirit, if not in body. His performance is among the best of his film career, largely shorn of the mannerisms that sometimes hamper appreciation of his work for modern audiences. He is supported by a very callow if impossibly handsome Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. whose tension in his role as Howard’s erstwhile friend is offset by the calm, soft-spoken decency of Paul Lukas‘ suave, well-mannered German officer, representing the historic links between England and Germany as well as a “good German”.
Photographed and edited in the staccato style of Warner Brothers studios in the early thirties, the strongest, visually arresting segments of the movie occur in the beginning and at the end of Captured! (1933). The tone of the movie, with almost all the scenes filmed at night, brightened by small spots of bright light, evokes the mood of Opening on a rain-soaked camp resounding with German oaths, rows of captured men from Britain, France and their Allies are forced to stand in the mud while a fulsome, brutish commandant (well played by ’30s stalwart, Robert Barrat), barks orders in German at them, demanding their names, ranks and the area where they were captured. One hesitant young lieutenant, Haversham (Philip Faverham), apparently disoriented and perhaps shell-shocked, looks around to his fellow prisoners, trying to discern if he should answer. The blank looks they give him are of no help, and Leslie Howard, as the ranking British captain, seems too exhausted and depressed to offer any solace or explanation to the youth. As he would in his most famous role in Gone With the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard, who was shot down and killed in a plane while on a World War Two mission as a civilian, usually embodied what has been called “the sincere fiction” of a “calm, sedate, honorable, courteous, monogamous…but rather passive” type. This role may have appealed to him in part because it peeled back that “sedate” exterior for a few scenes, allowing the actor to show some of the disquieting, obsessive aspects of a man who believes that his life only has meaning if he adheres to a set of values that he knows are hollow.
Compelled to endure further dehumanizing treatment, a series of stark, brusque scenes that would be impossible to show in studio films after the production code came into enforcement in July, 1934 follow the men as they are seen in a fairly graphic shower scene, (giving the film a typical dash of pre-code frankness that Warner Brothers felt warranted a lobby card, as seen in the image above). The German guards pass among the men with a basket, compelling each of them to throw the well-worn photos of their loved ones into a basket–some of them showing the wives, sweethearts, mothers, (and even one man’s prize calf!), stripping them of one more vestige of their identity and individuality in this inhuman environment. As the guards move along the line of prisoners, they also encounter Strogin (John Bleifer), an incoherent man whose mad eyes and bizarre behavior goes largely unnoticed by his fellow prisoners as he refuses to open his hand until its contents–a piece of string–is revealed after his arm is nearly broken forcing him to open his palm.
After the desperate young Lieutenant Haversham grabs a guard’s gun and shoots himself while crying “forgive me, mother, forgive me”, another French prisoner (played with verve by the king of the bit parts, J. Carrol Naish), turns the gun on the other guards and storms the door with his compatriots, leading to more bloodshed and the confinement of the remaining prisoners in a putrid cellar. Penned up in a large room in unsanitary and inhuman conditions for weeks at a time, Howard tries to dissuade the men from further violence, even while he clings to his memories of his wife, reading and re-reading her last letter to him, mentioning that she went to the theater with their mutual friend, Digby (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.).
The arrival of Paul Lukas as Colonel Carl Ehrlich, the new camp commandant, prompts a meeting with the prisoner’s representative, Capt. Allison, (Howard), who begs the German officer to allow the men to build somewhat healthier prisoners’ huts, giving them some much needed dignity and purpose in return for his promised acceptance of their need to cooperate with their captors. When it is revealed that Lukas was also an alumnus of Oxford (and a one time fencing champion there!), the pair find themselves developing a respectful, friendly rapport, even while the improbable coincidences begin to pile up in the plot of the film. Both men share similar civilized values, and the warmth that develops between the pair reflects their station in life, cutting across nationalistic boundaries, even though their good old boy networking is being undermined by changes in social norms that they are unaware of, caught up, as they seem to be, in some kind of reverie that enshrines notions of “fair play” in their idealization of a “gentleman’s war.” The humanity that Lukas gives his character, an echo of the Eric von Stroheim character in La Grande Illusion as well as that of the Anton Walbrook character in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, helps to convey the poignancy of the war and the changes that it forced on all participants.
The next unlikely plot twist arrives in the person of downed flier, Allison’s best friend, Lieutenant Fred ‘Dig’ Digby, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in a frantic performance that is not wholly convincing. Digby is very uncomfortable answering the lovesick Howard‘s repeated questions about his wife back in London. As you can readily guess, Digby and Monica (Margaret Lindsay) have fallen in love, prompting the understandably antsy and conscience-stricken youth to restlessly look for a way out of the stultifying boredom of the POW camp and away from the man he has betrayed. Monica, seen largely in flashbacks, has apparently realized that her marriage to Allison was a mistake almost immediately after he left for war, falling in love with the younger, dashing flyboy when he stops by to check on his buddy’s bride. Cruelly, Monica has ceased to write to her captured husband, but inundates Digby with missives full of her love for him. In a refreshing change, the lonely Margaret Lindsay character is not depicted as deliberately duplicitous, or seductively evil, but like the Howard and Fairbanks‘ characters, a confused person caught up in the upheaval of the war, looking for something, or someone, to cling to in life.
Digby, determined to escape, points out to the somewhat complacent Allison that his acceptance of the conditions in the camp may have been done to ensure the decent treatment of the other men, but it is somewhat passive and possibly unethical for any soldier. Digby does tell his friend when he intends to slip out of camp, giving Allison the opportunity to tell the Germans. On the night of Fairbanks‘ escape, however, the unhinged and largely ignored prisoner Strogin has also decided to slip out of the camp to rape and murder a young woman he has spied during her visits to the POW camp delivering milk from her nearby farm. Fairbanks, in an improbable sequence that seems straight out of Boy’s Life, manages to steal a plane and fly toward the Allied lines, reuniting with Lindsay briefly. When it is assumed that the escaped Digby is responsible for the rape and murder of the German milkmaid, international law compels the British to send the flier back for trial–especially after a letter notifying the English of the possible complicity of Digby is co-signed by a momentarily vengeful Howard after he is shown evidence from the scene of the crime–a love letter from Monica to Digby promising her undying devotion and describing her regret over her broken marriage vows. Returning to the camp after a brief cease fire has allowed the British and Germans to transfer their prisoner peacefully, (while the soldiers of both sides exchange civil greetings and cigarettes), the conscience-stricken Digby says that he is innocent, but offers no defense when he is tried for the crime. Allison, eventually aware of Strogin’s guilt after the madman hangs himself, leaving a note confirming his culpability, remains silent until Digby is found guilty and almost shot by a firing squad. In a complete turnabout, Howard, realizing that his reason for living has been obliterated, asks Digby to tell Monica that their marriage was a mistake. Telling his men to be on the alert to escape en masse, Allison easily takes a machine gun from a pair of lone guards, whose boredom on their post is alleviated by the perusal of a quasi-obscene cartoon in a magazine depicting the King of England in a “compromising position”.
Howard, in what may be the single most action packed scene of his career, slays his captors in a burst of gunfire, sacrificing his own life, while liberating his brethren and earning a salute from his friend and captor, the commandant of the prison camp. The POWs, charging the gate, storm a nearby air field, wrestling the biplanes away from the Germans and flying toward the Allied lines in an unlikely but stirringly filmed night scene said to have been staged at the Glendale, CA air field, using 75 biplanes and 1,500 people. This rousing finish by no means wrests this grim but compelling movie from an intriguing downbeat theme nor does it make the viewer believe in the triumphalism of the British over the Germans.
The basic story of Captured! (1933), while almost certainly influenced by the far greater film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930-Lewis Milestone), seems to have been an attempt by Warner Brothers to tell the unlikely tale of one imprisoned soldier falling in love with the wife (Margaret Lindsay) of another prisoner (Leslie Howard) with the background of war offering a melodramatic setting. However, given the approach of the filmmakers to the more compelling underlying elements of class loyalty, a possible homo-erotic subtext between Howard and Fairbanks, the changing status of women and marriage, and the futility of war, the flimsy romantic aspects of the eternal triangle in this story were ultimately undercut by the brevity of the film’s story and the script’s subsequent inability to depict the era’s upheaval on a larger scale. What makes the film work is the very well done atmosphere of the POW camp, the portrayal of the psychological stress endured by all soldiers, the now quaint notions of civilized behavior, and a performance by Leslie Howard as a gallant loser that a generation later would be perfected by John Mills as any number of actors would make their own mark on screen playing nuanced versions of this touching archetype. This very brief 69 minute movie introduced themes that might not have been fully developed, but as a snapshot of some of the attitudes prevalent in the aftermath of the First World War, as well as notions of what once was regarded as civilized behavior, the film remains pretty fascinating. Captured! is not available, as far as I know, in DVD or VHS formats commercially, though it was broadcast recently on TCM and may show up again on the schedule.
You can see the original trailer for Captured! (1933) here:
*Sometimes looking at the past, you know that the world was a very different place. I was reminded of this when stumbling across an image of Philip Gibbs in a cache of collectible cigarette cards from that period featuring, like movie stars of the period, English scribblers of some renown, such as Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells. Given such illustrious company, Warner Brothers appears to have been reaching for a share of this prestige when they bought the rights to make the movie Captured! from the author’s novel. Just imagine a world where a Thomas Pynchon, David Sedaris, Anne Tyler, Cormac McCarthy and even Stephen King might be pictured on a pack of cards that come with…what?…Altoids breath mints?
Knightley, Philip, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, JHU Press, 2004.
Richards, Jeffrey, Visions of Yesterday, Routledge, 1973
Sperling, Cass Warner, Millner, Cork, and Warner, Jack (.ed.), Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story, University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Vera, Hernán, Gordon, Andrew, Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
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