THE BAMBOO PRISON, an atrocious 1954 take on a serious subject, would engender more laughs over its manhandling were not the real-life miseries inflicted on the counterparts of its fictional characters so far removed from such cavalier treatment and resultant camp-fodder groans. The best thing you can say about this Korean War P.O.W. bilge is that it’s only 79 minutes long. *
American prisoners at a camp in North Korea (or China, it isn’t made clear) have barely adequate food, shelter or any sort of medical care and are subjected to “re-education” harangues by their captors. Only ‘Sgt. Rand’ (Robert Keith) has it better, since he’s co-operating with the Communists, deemed a “Progressive” by the captors, who include a British ‘Comrade Clayton’ (Miles Malleson), a brainwashing expert from Moscow, there with his alluring Russian ballerina (what else?) wife (Dianne Foster), who Rand becomes involved with. New arrival ‘Cpl. Brady’ (Brian Keith) wonders what Rand’s real deal is, while ‘Father Francis Dolan’ (E.G. Marshall) tries to be helpful. But who’s really up to what?
This was one of just four pictures new find Robert Francis made before his untimely death at 25. Columbia gave the interesting, low-key newcomer an important part in The Caine Mutiny and third billing (after Tyrone Power and Maureen O”Hara) in John Ford’s The Long Gray Line, then starred him as a cavalryman in They Rode West, and an apparent turncoat in this war picture. It’s not the fault of the ill-fated Francis, let alone Keith, Marshall or others in the cast that the movie stinks: they’re let down by a cheapskate production, slack direction and particularly obnoxious material.
Edwin Blum (he’d just written Stalag 17) and Jack DeWitt mangled the script; they could not have done worse by the subject, with the truly idiotic romantic angle, aching stereotypes in the secondary characters, awful comic relief (lot’s of goofing off in one of those frozen, brutal camps, you betcha) and pathetically staged action moments. Foster is put on slink mode as the Slavic vamp, dressed like she’s going to the opera, complete with fur wrap and cigarette holder, while Malleson sneers that “in Russia, they don’t have the American pre-occupation with sex”. It would all be a hoot if the real-life misery of the camps wasn’t so odious, as such the clichés aren’t comic but cringeworthy.
At large among the abused Yanks is Leo Gordon, who played a different, much less sympathetic kind of convict that year in the tough nut Riot in Cell Block 11. Other than Malleson’s absurd purring as the Brit stooge brainwash pro, the main Red bad guys are given to Richard Loo (of course), who gets to shout a lot, and Keye Luke, tasked with patiently lecturing.
Directed by Lewis Seiler, who did a decent job a decade earlier on Guadalcanal Diary: he should have stuck with World War 2. His sloppy work here—no help from that wretched script—only tagged 129th place with a gross of $1,800,000.
With Jerome Courtland, Earle Hyman, Jack Kelly, King Donovan, Weaver Lee, John Beradino, James Anderson, Joe Turkel, Mushy Callahan, Eddie Ryder, Aaron Spelling.
* The same year offered Prisoner of War, with Ronald Reagan. Grim, minus the G.I. horseplay and Russian chick jazz, it did somewhat better at the box office. Other pictures dealing with Korean War brainwashing trauma were Rod Serling’s The Rack, with Paul Newman, Time Limit, with Richard Widmark, The Manchurian Candidate, with Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey, The Young And The Brave, with Rory Calhoun and William Bendix and Sergeant Ryker, with Lee Marvin.