THE COLDITZ STORY, from Britain in 1955, beat the epic The Great Escape under the fence by eight years, telling the also-true story of Allied P.O.W.s daring breakouts from a Nazi prison camp during WW2. The imposing setting is a Renaissance castle in the German town of Colditz, near Leipzig and Dresden. Considered impossible to escape from, nonetheless 320 attempts were made from it during the war: the well-made film documents some that failed, and one that succeeded. Patrick Reid, a British Army officer who escaped from Colditz, wrote best-sellers on the subject, and served as technical advisor on the film, where he’s played by John Mills. Guy Hamilton, who’d later treat us to Goldfinger, directed, and co-adapted Reid’s book with Ivan Foxwell.
1942. “Bad apples” among Allied prisoners (the officers anyway), men who’d displayed aptitude and willingness to break out of prison camps, are transferred to Colditz castle. The practical German commander and his guards are intelligent and watchful, but don’t need to be unduly harsh, as escape from this place is highly unlikely. Think again, as the British, French, Dutch and Polish inmates try and try again, putting their national and individual desires aside toward sharing the risk.
John Mills once again dons a uniform and affects military bearing, and shares pluck and defiance with the rock solid likes of Eric Portman, Lionel Jeffries, Christopher Rhodes, Bryan Forbes and Theodore Bikel. Excelling as their captors are Frederick Valk, Denis Shaw and Anton Diffring.
Produced for around £136,000 (roughly £2,911,000 in 2021/$,4,000,000), it was a hit in Britain (#4 for the year), but didn’t make a dent in the States.*
With Richard Wattis, Ian Carmichael and Eugene Deckers. 93 minutes.
* For assorted reasons, Brit war films didn’t register in the States, regardless of quality. Distribution was no doubt a factor, without studio clout to push them, and casts unfamiliar to the American market. If Alan Ladd was added to the mix (Paratrooper) they had a chance, but most U.S. fans had to discover stalwarts like this, The Dam Busters or The Cruel Sea years later on TV.
Salute Mr. Mills: over the course of his seven-decade career, John Mills—who had served during the war—put on a uniform of one stripe or another in 31 films, working his way up the chain from lowly seaman to Viceroy. Co-star Christopher Rhodes won the Croix de Guerre and achieved Lt.Col rank during WW2. As opposed to his usual bumbling persona in movies, Lionel Jeffries had been a Captain, serving in Burma. Actor-turned-writer and director, Bryan Forbes served, no surprise, in the Intelligence Corps.