Some of my earliest cinematic memories (apart from The Jungle Book (1967) and One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975)) are made up of watching VHS copies of prisoner-of-war films at my grandparents’ home. After recently re-watching The Wooden Horse (1950) and then discovering one I had never seen before, King Rat (1965), I wanted to look back at this micro-genre to see how it functioned and how it developed in the post-War years. The best known PoW film is the US produced The Great Escape (1963), but the genre first appeared in Britain in 1946 and developed for many years before it got the Technicolor treatment in Hollywood.
“All of the early PoW films take place in officer-only camps, therefore avoiding any working class characters.”
Before we get on to how exactly the genre developed over time we need to look at what attracted filmmakers, studios and audiences to it in the first place. Film Historian Nicholas J. Cull offers three such reasons: first, it allowed British filmmakers to approach the topic of the war with little cost; second, it allowed the war to be remembered according to a particular notion of ‘Englishness’; and third, the genre allowed audiences the thrill of a crime or prison escape story without the moral problems that they created. The first and third reasons for working within this genre are straight-forward solutions to problems the filmmakers faced, the second reason, however, is what I find to be the most interesting aspect of these films. Film presents a particular view of history made up of a topic, characters, themes and tone. This view can never be complete, it can only be one perspective on the subject, especially when you are dealing with something as huge and complex as the Second World War. The question has to be: through what kind of perspective is the war being shown to us in the PoW film?
As with many genres we can track its development alongside the historical and socio-political environment that it sprang from. The genre appeared in 1946, The Wooden Horse was released in 1950 and King Rat in 1965. The years between 1946 and 1965 saw drastic changes in British culture and society, and it is these changes that we can see effecting the PoW genre. We can begin to understand this genre by looking at its origins. Interestingly it is not the result of prison or escape narratives, but in fact it is a continuation of English boarding school stories. The prefects became the Goons, the dorms become the huts and childhood rebellion becomes escape attempts and sabotage. All of the early PoW films take place in officer-only camps, therefore avoiding any working class characters. It wouldn’t be until the Angry Young Men arrived in British theatre and literature in the 1950s that serious characters for working class actors would be developed. The film industry had a longer wait, it would be the British New Wave of the 1960s that introduced working class actors like Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney to the screen.
“Here we have a working-class character whose actions and words point out the hypocrisy of his betters.”
The early films consist of young public school boys out to beat the Hun. Much of the atmosphere of the boarding school is carried over to the PoW camp. There is a well established hierarchy, amateur dramatics and daily physical exercise. Some films also show us the camp choir and lessons in biology and history taking place. The escape attempt in The Wooden Horse relies on the continuation of these boarding school events. The characters start an athletics club that spends each day exercising with a wooden vaulting horse. The wooden horse is actually a Trojan horse and conceals a man who spends the day digging a tunnel under the wire. The film focuses on the ingenious nature of the escape plan; little attention is given to the dangers or problems faced by the men inside the camp. The representation of the war in The Wooden Horse is that of a game, a competition that these young upper-middle class and upper class officers win with creativity and relatively little effort (when compared to the genuine threat and danger that is represented in The Great Escape). The production of the film also reflects a general tone in British filmmaking during the early years of the Cold War where they looked back to a time of moral certainties.
Fifteen years later King Rat is released and its content is greatly removed from the happy days of The Wooden Horse. In her 1965 Sight & Sound review Penelope Houston states that:
Ten years ago a prisoner-of-war film starring John Mills could have been expected to take only one form: the heroic… Now Columbia have invested what looks on the face of it like a fair-sized budget in a film which converts the traditional prisoner-of-war image into that of scavengers in a charnel-house.
King Rat takes places in Changi Jail in Singapore in 1945. The opening title screens inform the viewer that unlike the European PoW camps there is nowhere to escape too, all you can do in a place like Changi is survive. The opening credits are shown over a long series of shots that show the despicable state of life in the camp. The most overriding image is that of sweat, every character in the film is constantly dripping through their torn and dirty rags. That is, all except for Corporal King, an American who has managed to profit from the situation by trading with the guards. He lives the life of luxury with several changes of clothing, his own food supply and even his own packs of cigarettes. His power is so great that higher ranking soldiers work as his footmen and butlers. But the film shows us that in Changi everyone is screwing everyone to survive, even the officers are stealing rations. That is, of course, apart from Tom Courtenay who plays Provost Marshal Grey. This young working class officer is in charge of enforcing the rules of the Japanese captors and also the standards of the prisoners. His rule is total, under his watch a soldier is murdered for stealing food. The character of Grey is the most drastic change to the genre. Here we have a working-class character whose actions and words point out the hypocrisy of his betters. He is motivated by the desire to catch and punish King red-handed, who he sees to be exploiting the other prisoners in the camp.
Grey’s desire to protect the majority from the actions of the officers and the crooks displays a strikingly different view of camp society than that provided by the boarding-school politics of The Wooden Horse. The change that had occurred in the genre by this point was lost on critics of the time, the Monthly Film Bulletin went as far as to declare it “as conventional as ever.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth. King Rat introduces a psychological reality that had been unmatched in the British PoW film. We see how these men are driven insane by their situation, one man is reduced to hysterics after one of his chickens, who he believes to be his children, is killed by another man’s dog. The dog is sentenced to death and both men are left weeping amongst the chicken pens. The true horror of the camp is revealed when King ends up cooking the dog for his companions who are horrified at first but soon turn into salivating monsters who moan with pleasure as they eat their friend’s companion.
“Through the microcosm of the PoW film we can see some of the changes that happened in Britain in the post-war years.”
As well as injecting psychological realism and class consciousness to the genre the film also features a potential gay subtext between the upper class Marlowe (James Fox) and King. Marlowe is the educated, skirt-wearing, Englishman who develops a very strong friendship with King. Their relationship is not consummated on the screen in any way, but the nature of Marlowe’s heartbreak when King leaves the camp definitely allows for a queer reading of the film.
The genre became realist, politicised and culturally diverse. Through the microcosm of the PoW film we can see some of the changes that happened in Britain in the post-war years. When the PoW genre appeared in 1946 it resembled a grown-up version of the Just William stories, but by 1965 it had become closer to the anarchic world of If… (1968).