Saturday, February 13, 2010

Captured! (1933): Obscure Yet Influential?

Captured! (1933-Roy Del Ruth) is a Warner Brothers film that was advertised in overheated ad copy of the time as a "cavalcade of human passions in the maelstrom of mankind's great adventure". This little known pre-code movie never reaches those hyperbolic proportions, and has largely been forgotten, but, despite its strengths and flaws, I suspect that the situations depicted among men isolated in the time of war may have had an unacknowledged impact on later depictions of POW camps on film, influencing everything from La Grande Illusion (1937-Jean Renoir) to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943-Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) to Stalag 17 (1953-Billy wilder) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957-David Lean). The movie is an uneven look at the erosion of accepted values in the 20th century, and it is also an interesting glimpse of the changing public attitudes toward war, influenced by a rise of pacifism following World War I.

Captured! is based on the novel, "Fellow Prisoners" by Sir Philip Gibbs, a British journalist who battled censorship and documented the battles and the after-effects of the conflict in a series of non-fiction books published during and after the First World War. Forgotten today, his words on The Great War, found in now mouldering copies of The Soul of War, Now It Can Be Told, and The Realities of War, explored the tragic inner workings, errors and misconceptions of the governments behind the disaster that we have come to call the First World War, with a special emphasis on the individuals caught up in what he called "the great machine of slaughter." Gibbs, a liberal man whose background was lower middle class rather than from the elite, wrote government-censored dispatches for British newspapers that were distributed throughout the world via news services during the war, even while he was also in attendance at meetings with wartime leaders. After one such dinner, British Prime Minister Lloyd George concluded, after listening to Gibbs' account of the progress of the war, that "if people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow."

Pouring out his knowledge of the war in his postwar writing made Gibbs an enormously famous man in the English speaking world*, even while he remained somewhat controversial for revealing how old-fashioned notions of the nature of war in the age of technology and a chilling disregard for the lives of the men in the war actually helped to prolong the disaster on all sides. Just as the in-depth reporting of Neil Sheehan for The New York Times and in later books helped to reveal the fatal tangle of misapprehensions behind the Vietnam War, Gibbs helped to shape public opinion in his day. The fictional version of a POW camp that Gibbs wrote about in his novel "Fellow Prisoners" was culled from the author's continued research into the experiences of the men who had lived it, and the glimmer of reality shines through the romantic gloss that Hollywood felt obliged to ladle on in some scenes in this movie.

Warner Brothers, the most topical of Hollywood studios, was already well known for hard-hitting realism found in films about WWI veterans such as I Am a Prisoner From a Chain Gang (1932-Mervyn LeRoy) and Heroes for Sale (1933-William Wellman), and they were determined to shake what has been described as a persistent "image as a penny-pinching studio specializing in schlock." Associating themselves with famous individuals with a "veneer of class" such as Gibbs, was part of their efforts to enhance their standing, as was their acquisition of the services of actor Leslie Howard, then considered one of the leading romantic actors of his day...more on the Movie Morlocks at TCM

Update 7-9-2011: Captured! (1933) is still not on DVD or VHS, but can be seen here online in five parts at youtube at the moment.


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