The Wooden Horse (1950)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 January (3.35 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

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: ****

Quo Vadis (1951)

When it’s on: Friday, 24 August (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s sprawling novel about persecuted Christians and the mad Emperor Nero during the first century AD, may very well have been published initially in 1895 but it remains a stunning read. Make it past the first few pages of scene setting and the pace is strong, the description alive and the whole is suffused with a sense of bitter injustice. Sienkiewicz researched his tome by visiting many of the places featuring in the novel, soaking up historical details for use in the prose, and whilst it isn’t entirely factually accurate Quo Vadis emerges as a work rich in periodic authenticity.

There’s also an undercurrent of allegory at play. Sienkiewicz felt deeply for the state of his native Poland and ensured that, if readers wanted it, reflections of the people’s misery were on hand within the text. It’s an element entirely missing from the 1951 cinema adaptation, which was made chiefly to try and drag people off their sofas, the couches that more and more faced brand new television sets, and into their local theatres. Where the ‘box’ offered soft black and white images on a 12″ screen, Quo Vadis came in full colour and served up the dazzling sight of Imperial Rome, featuring thousands of extras and a rousing tale of the early Christians. Side reasons included a valid excuse to shoot women wearing diaphanous gowns (period detail, right?), not to mention evading any blacklisting worries by putting out a feature with strong Christian sympathies whilst allowing Americans to wallow in the grandeur of the Roman Empire at its height. No expense was spared. Robert Taylor was a suitably Latin looking American star, backed up with a cast of British actors to extend the link between Received Pronunciation and films set in the past.

To enjoy Quo Vadis, one really has to find some degree of empathy with cinema audiences in the post-War years. Imagine a drab world, one without modern luxuries and still very much recovering from conflict, and the rare treat that must have been the opportunity to watch something like this, with its incredible props, costumes, vast sets and those many, many extras all simulating the experience of a long lost time in history. Throw in a love story that crosses religious and cultural divides, involving two impossibly glamorous performers, and then give us a mad king who can annihilate cities and people at a whim, and how can you not have a winner? Make no mistake. There are things on the screen of Quo Vadis that viewers will never have seen before, the offering of spectacle on a dizzying scale. It must have been intoxicating.

Watched now, the film’s weaknesses become more glaring. Its main problem is a pace that oscillates between stately and glacial, all those lingering ‘money’ shots of the forum and long, long romantic interludes between Marcus Vinicius (Taylor) and Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in which endless talk replaces passion. Perhaps spectacle alone did for contemporary audiences, yet now it make Quo Vadis an endurance test of a watch. Both actors are fine in their parts. Taylor has been accused of putting in a stagey performance, but I don’t think that’s it and rather the issue is one of the actor being unable to fill such a wide screen. Few could. It’s no surprise that a force of charisma like Charlton Heston kept getting work in epic cinema, but his is a rare gift. Kerr is ravishing and whilst allowed to show little of the frustration that made her so charged in Black Narcissus, signs of the conflict she faces between her faith and Vinicius are clear enough.

Quo Vadis’s main draw is of course the turn by Peter Ustinov as Nero. It’s more a gift than a job of work, in fairness, but Ustinov has great fun in a role that bounces between comedy and evil, and is even capable of eliciting some sympathy for his terrible Emperor, shown in the moments when he seeks validation from his closest counsellors but all he gets is grovelling. Ustinov’s so good that he almost obliterates the impression made by Leo Genn, playing a ‘good’ Senator and the one man close to Nero who’ll tell him what he really thinks. It’s a game, of course, and Petronius is as toadying as the rest when he needs to be, only he knows how to play his cards better. Watching him tie the hapless Emperor in intellectual knots is great entertainment.

A bit of a flawed experience, all told, one directed by Mervyn LeRoy in an assignment that must at times have felt more like a task of crowd control. Quo Vadis was filmed at Rome’s massive Cinecitta Studios and employed 32,000 people to act as soldiers and Roman citizens. The crowd scenes are enormous in scale, largely because all those individuals are really there on the screen, fleeing Rome in flames and advancing on Nero’s Imperial Palace. LeRoy also gets in a few stylistic touches, such as the long shot of Rome ablaze, which was inspired by the director’s childhood memories of witnessing the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

Quo Vadis: ***