The Purple Plain

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THE PURPLE PLAIN is finally getting long-overdue respect more than six decades after it came out in 1954. A real find for Gregory Peck fans, this dramatic, unusual and affecting story of psychological trauma, physical survival and spiritual salvation, excellently written, acted, directed and photographed, was taken from a best-selling 1947 novel written by H.E.Bates. Eric Ambler (The Cruel Sea, A Night To Remember) wrote the script, Robert Parrish was in the pilot seat as director. The top rank cameraman was Geoffrey Unsworth. *

The Purple Plain - inside

I wanted to die but I got medals instead.”

Burma, 1945. Canadian bomber pilot ‘Bill Forrester’ (Peck, 38) lost his newlywed wife in London’s 1940 Blitz. Serving with the Royal Air Force, he essentially pursues a death wish with his reckless combat exploits, alienating fellow servicemen. His unit’s compassionate doctor (Bernard Lee) maneuvers him into a spot of respite with missionaries at a nearby village, where he meets ‘Anna’ (Win Min Than), a young Burmese woman, an English-speaking refugee. Her guileless decency and warmth melts his trauma-frozen emotional core. A routine mission becomes a desperate struggle against all odds when his plane goes down in the jungle. One of the men with him (Lyndon Brook) is injured, the other (Maurice Denham) nothing but trouble, yet the determined Forrester now has something to live for—Anna.

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The only slight debit in this otherwise terrific picture are some hokey model effects of airplanes in flight, but even their quaintness adds to the real special effect of the story, its heart, prizing empathy and gentleness in the midst of doubt and pain, making the fortitude and valor of the survival trek all the more telling. The finale has a similar emotional effect as the one in A Town Called Alice, coincidentally set in the same region and period, and also shot by cameraman Unsworth. He does great work here, both with very effective use of closeups and in wide shots of the sun-baked locations: it was made in Ceylon/ Sri Lanka; some of the settings were later showcased in The Bridge on the River Kwai. One is the ancient rock fortress Sigiriya.

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Peck delivers one of his most natural, well-delineated pieces of acting, maybe his best of that decade (he starred in 18 pictures in the 50s, including several classics), and he works in graceful harmony with the delicate 22-year-old Win Min Than in her first and only film role: she glows, radiating sincerity and sweetness. Her performance becomes more special when you realize the shy newcomer was often so nervous before shooting a scene that she’d shake with anxiety, her face torquing into convulsions.

ANNA: “It’s not good to die inside.”  BILL: “It’s like living a bad dream.” ANNA: “Here we bury the dead in the earth not in our hearts.”

Three fine supporting performances add luster. Most movie fans know Bernard Lee chiefly (or only) for his gruff ‘M’ in the first 11 Bond epics; it’s a pleasure to see him as the affable and kindly medical officer here. Venerable character player Maurice Denham does sterling work as the vexatious ‘Blore’, who gives Peck as much trouble as the tropical humidity (this movie has a perspiration factor of +10); it’s one of the high points among his 202 credits. Brenda de Banzie makes a strong impression as the high-spirited ‘Miss McNab’, the devout and devoted missionary.

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Costing around $2,000,000, in the States it grossed $3,700,000, ranking just 93rd for the year. No detailed info available, but it likely did decent business elsewhere: it was quite popular in England.

With Anthony Bushell and Peter Arne. 100 minutes.

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*  Geoffrey Unsworth (1914-1978) lent his camera eye to make the following gleam: Scott Of The Antarctic, A Night To Remember, Flame Over India, The 300 Spartans, Becket, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cromwell , Cabaret, A Bridge Too Far, Superman and Tess.

Sweat rivers off the actors in this picture, the blistering Ceylonese locations cinching the ‘you are there’ feel. Burma was hell on earth to fight in, but that torrid theater of conflict made for some fine films—Objective Burma!, Yesterday’s Enemy, Merrill’s Marauders. Notably in this movie, while the Japanese are obviously the armed opposition, they’re never seen up close. The daunting environment is a greater threat. But the real enemy in this story isn’t latitude, but Attitude. Wrenching a defeated spirit back to the concept of hope becomes the battleground, with a different kind of heroism shown in the restorative calm and peace shining in the demure gaze of Anna and Win Min Than.

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