The classic 1950’s escape drama is restored and re-released 70 years after one of Colditz castle’s detainees became one of the few to achieve the ‘impossible’.
Another welcome restoration of a five decades old film, The Colditz Story returns to our small screens in a crisp Blu-ray print. Patrick Robert ‘Pat’ Reid’s best-selling book The Colditz Story (1952), about his life in the castle from which he escaped in October 1942, provides the premise for this quintessential example of the World War 2 prisoner escape drama, perhaps a film genre that saw its superb genesis in La Grande Illusion (1937) although The Colditz Story is not in any way less worthy. Indeed some aspects of this film seem to be well considered references to Renoir’s classic, but additional story elements and some wonderfully evocative use of shadows gives The Colditz Story a different overall film experience. Director Guy Hamilton makes the most positive uses of his predominantly studio based interior sets.
Colditz, a beautiful castle atop an impressive hill, has had its impressive décor altered to provide more captivating accommodation for its new residents. For Colditz’s occupants are captives, prisoners incarcerated by the Nazi regime because of their repeated attempts to escape from other prisoner of war camps. There are a variety of nationalities imprisoned, but all the inmates have the same basic goal – plan an escape, no matter how, and return either to their home or to re-engage in conflict. The German Kommandant (Frederick Valk), despite his apparently reasonable persona, is determined that the captives remain there, whatever the cost, for Colditz castle has a defined function: to be inescapable. Pat Reid (John Mills) is similarly determined to help the men leave – from consistent tunnelling attempts, disguises, hiding in old mattresses and even arranging escapes whilst their comrades are performing a show in the castle’s theatre.
Still eminently watchable, The Colditz Story succeeds on a number of levels. It is based upon a true story (prisoners’ attempts to escape the un-escapable prison) and the film works because of the way that the narrative threads carry the various escape attempts through a fairly lengthy time period whilst never dragging matters out. This is enhanced by the stock of plausible characters who all have distinctive traits and personalities but the film never seeks to make them either caricatures or overtly heroic. The film builds the dramatic tension for all the escape attempts, even those that fail early on or are only partly successful. As a result this makes for a thoroughly engaging drama.
The documentary extra Colditz Revealed: Life Inside the Colditz Castle is a fascinating addition to the presentation where former prisoners and their relatives (Pat Reid’s son) recall their time at the castle and recount details about the relationships between the different nationalities as well as talking about the daily life there, placing the film in context.
Overall a nicely restored version of the film that is as realistic in its portrayal as you could wish for without being gratuitous, saccharine or maudlin.