When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 January (3.35 pm)
On Friday, 30 January, it’s exactly fifty years since the funeral of Winston Churchill. The BBC has marked the occasion with a week of war films, all tangentially linked to the man himself, though on Friday we get Simon Ward fighting them on the beaches (or something) in Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston.
Elsewhere, it’s a mixed bag of offerings, though my favourite sub-genre is almost certainly the British war film of the 1950s, as evidenced by The Wooden Horse. Refusing to reinvent war stories as boys’ own adventure yarns, or overdo the humanist exercises in guilt and sacrifice of more recent times, these films held special poignancy for domestic audiences, for whom memories of the conflict were fresh and vivid. Perhaps it’s for this reason that films like The Wooden Horse carry a certain degree of honesty. The Germans might be the enemy but they are never portrayed as cardboard villains, similarly there’s some heroism about the British protagonists yet they’re rooted in real emotions.
The Wooden Horse was directed by Jack Lee, who cut his teeth filming footage of the Blitz, often at great personal risk. It’s this sensibility that gives the film an almost documentary feel. There’s little music and efforts are made to depict the prison camp, Stalag Luft III, as realistically as possible. It was filmed in a reconstructed camp in West Germany, which helped the picture ultimately run over budget. The overriding impression within is one of boredom. The British prisoners are treated fairly, on the whole, perhaps too much so as their lives have slowed down to memorising each others’ bedroom routines. The plan to escape is born more out of the need to do something, anything, rather than go mad amidst the tedium of camp life.
Though licence was taken with some of the facts, The Wooden Horse was based on a true story of ordinary people achieving the extraordinary. Escape from Stalag Luft III seemed impossible, given the sheer number of guards and gunner outposts. The scheme saw some of the inmates construct a vaulting horse and perform gymnastics on it in an effort to keep physically fit, though this was a front – in reality, as the prisoners vaulted, one man would remain inside the horse and dig a tunnel to freedom, 100 feet long and right beneath the guards’ noses. Hooks were fitted inside the horse so that when it was returned to barracks it would contain bags of earth from the hole, which were then scattered; in the meantime, a temporary construction of planks, sandbags and topsoil covered the mouth of the tunnel. This went on for months until three men made it right outside the camp’s fences, and successfully escaped back to Britain.
In the film, the main escapologists are Peter (Leo Genn) and John (Anthony Steel), the lead actors within a decidedly unstarry cast. Genn’s a favourite with this writer due to his ability to look as though he knew something that everyone else did not. This was Steel’s breakthrough role. With his matinee good looks and fine figure, The Wooden Horse could have helped to make him a star, and for a brief period during the early to mid-fifties he appeared to be heading in the right direction, until a string of box office flops coupled with his addiction to alcohol and high living put paid to that.
All Peter and John’s struggles can’t stop many of the digging scenes from generating mounting levels of suspense. It appears the unlikeliest of plans. Tunnelling right before soldiers, the noise of their work muffled by the gymnastics taking place, it would take the slightest thing going wrong, such as someone knocking the horse over, to bring their bid for freedom to an end. Yet make it they do, the second half of the film focusing on their attempt to leave Germany, which brings on a further slew of troubles, In one scene, Peter is forced to kill a Nazi trooper who just happens to be in the wrong place; the look of terror and disgust on his face afterwards shows what we might have suspected, that he’s never before had to take a life, and doing so appalls him.
It’s a world away from more celebrated ‘escape’ pictures, the best known of which is, of course, that old Bank Holiday favourite The Great Escape, with its ensemble cast and rogue’s gallery of renegades, nut jobs and American bluff jarring against British stiff upper lips. Indeed, compared with the sight of Steve McQueen’s heroic charge across the German countryside on a motorbike, The Wooden Horse might appear tame and even a little quaint. Yet it wins entirely in terms of realism, the levels of bickering increasing between Peter and John as they face exhaustion after so many near misses, the unease as they are forced to rely on people they have no idea they can trust, the sheer tension of attempting to make it through a situation as mundane as buying a train ticket to Lübeck unscathed and undetected. It’s a great film, made without resorting to patriotic message-making, and maintaining complete faith in the power of its central story.
The Wooden Horse: ****