When British Army officer Pat Reid approached the bleached white foundations of Colditz Castle, he was probably not speculating which actor would later portray him in an autobiographical account of his infamous prison escape. Whoever it was, they had to almost parody the quintessence of Britishness, be partial to an over waxed quiff, and above everything, hate the ruddy Jerries. The leading man turned out to be one of Britain’s most prolific filmic exports, John Mills (who had already played Scott of the Antarctic), who starred as Reid in Guy Hamilton’s 1955 historical adaptation, The Colditz Story.
Customised from Reid’s published memoirs, Mills performs perfectly the pipe puffing, foreigner-goading ‘good old boy’ with the sole objective to escape the confinements of the notorious PoW camp, Colditz Castle. Like a static Titanic, Nazi troops recklessly believed that Colditz’s position on a rocky outcrop high above a river made the castle inescapable. Yet the will and tenacity of its plucky inmates proved nothing can be deemed impossible. After a a riotous montage of crass escape attempts (some moderately successful, others totally tactless), Reid, accompanied by three other PoWs made Britain’s first successful home run in January 1942. Reid was one of 56 triumphant escapists, a record unequalled in any PoW camp in the two world wars.
Hamilton’s restored work comes 70 years after the original escape, and with it stems a celebratory air of patriotism equal to other works including Battle of Britain (1969) or The Dam Busters (1955). With unflappable performances from a world class company of actors, The Colditz Story has been rendered as a light-hearted embrace of all things British. Mills plays the downtrodden but downright determined Reid impeccably, with a supporting crew as solid as the camp’s foundations. In addition, despite the occasional death and failed attempts for liberation, it all seems to be a rollicking lark; almost as if the troops were on their annual lad’s trip holidays around Europe.
This is somewhat where The Colditz Story falls flat. Aside from the genuinely charming acting, the stereotypical character coding of European prisoners has aged almost too greatly to take seriously. Referring to the English as a country that laughs at everything and in return nothing at all is at the forefront of Hamilton’s narrative. Every pistol shot and siren raised is followed by a throwaway one liner. On a subject brimming with earnest candour, Hamilton’s film seems all too preoccupied to jest with light-hearted witticisms than report on Reid’s inspiring journey.
As infectious as The Colditz Story’s cast may be (they truly do make the film), the sincerity is sometimes lost. If you seek a true visualisation of PoW camps and their damaging psychological effect on the human mind, look more towards Jean Renoir’s deeply unsettling La Grande Illusion (1937), or even John Sturges’ commercial campfest The Great Escape (1963) for that matter.