Films of the First World War usually seem to pale in comparison to those of the Second. Outside of perhaps a very few films, most any film buff would mention a World War II- or Vietnam War film as among their top choices. For the former the Evil was certainly much greater, with Hitler a clear front-runner for the title of Evil Incarnate. The latter is still recent in the minds of many; both photographic and filmed records of these two wars are somewhat pervasive.
But what about the Great War? Certainly portions were filmed and photos are many, but another reason perhaps that this war fares a bit worse in Hollywood is twofold. One, the technology of the industry was still being perfected, with sound appearing in the late 20s- though obviously there were the silents. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this war simply was so disastrous that frankly no one wanted to revisit it. With the reasons for it not so clear cut as the Second, and literally an entire generation slaughtered in places like Verdun, Ypres, the Somme, and the Marne, there was little appetite to revisit it as isolationalism took over the States.
Captured!, a rather forgotten little film, was released by Warner Brothers in the summer of 1933. Though perhaps drawing some original impetus from Hitler’s rise to power in January of the same year, here the focus is purely on the prison camp in which the film is set.
Leslie Howard, still best remembered as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, is Captain Fred Allison, a captured Victoria Cross recipient and reluctant leader of the captured men. He is a newlywed, as well, somehow meeting, wooing, marrying, and purchasing a home with Monica (Margaret Lindsay) all over the course of six presumably busy days. He pines for her but hasn’t gotten any letters from her In quite a while, much to his disbelief.
After another prisoner attempts to escape, the prisoners are confined to a dank cellar, bereft of their few perks, and limited to a diet of bread and water. Finally a new commandant arrives in the form of Carl Ehrlich (Paul Lukas), who gradually befriends Allison after realizing they are both Oxford graduates and removes the punishments.
Here is where Captured! Is most successful- in telling the gritty and solitary world of life in these camps. Though the guards are harsh, there isn’t the sense of wickedness for the mere sake of it which you’d see in films set in the next war. You can still see the shared kinship these soldiers have for each other even though they are on opposite sides of the trenches. But alas, what could have been a good tale goes a bit sideways……
With the arrival of Allison’s old friend Digby (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), who has also just been captured. Peppered with constant questions about Monica, Digby yearns to escape whatever the cost. As becomes clear, Digby and Monica have themselves become an item and this is the reason for the lack of any new letters for our star.
In what continues to be a somewhat incredulous amount of coincidences, Digby does escape, but in the process his relationship with Monica is exposed. After a very brief reconciliation with Monica in (presumably) England, Digby is returned to the German camp at their request to face trial on murder and rape charges for an incident which took place in the course of his escape.
Disgusted at the situation, Digby clams up and, though innocent, is summarily sentenced to be shot. In one of the more melodramatic scenes of the short picture, Howard rushes in at the last minute to save his friend.
Now knowing that his brief marriage is over, Allison concocts a plan for the entire camp population to escape, even at the risk of his own life. Overtaking some guards, Allison creates enough of a distraction to permit the remaining captives to escape to a nearby German air base, where they all fly home to freedom. (Never mind how all these men flew home in presumably two-seater aircraft. Lots of captured pilots, perhaps.)
In a violent scene really out of character with most of Howard’s career, he grabs a machine gun and blasts away at the Kaiser’s finest until he is blown to smithereens.
Captured! gives the viewer a very promising first and final act, but the middle circles like water in the drain. When focused on the camp and the situation there, the film is a home run. The tepid inclusion of Digby- or more accurately the inclusion of his fling with Monica- derails the proceeding with a series of implausibility’s.
The acting is superb however, and it is shameful that this picture isn’t better know today as it is surely among Leslie Howard’s finer performances. His usual rather deadpan and disengaged style works wondrously here with a little tweaking to be the downtrodden and forlorn captive. For those in the know on Howard’s career, Captured! follows Berkeley Square in his filmography.
There is a particularly poignant moment when Howard and another prisoner are discussing the nearby air base. Howard looks sadly skyward at the other’s mention of “those bomber planes,” almost as if he new his fate would be related. Note to the evolution of language as a mere six years later we would have just said “bombers.”
Lucas too ads his usual charm and dedication to the role, and the scenes he shares with Howard (especially those in Lucas’ quarters) are the best in the film. His level and calm delivery is almost the sheer antithesis of what you’d expect in a prison camp- as we see in the later film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Last among the stars we have Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It is unfair to shackle him as the cause of the films problems as he is literally just the messenger. That said, his performance is over the top and comes off as more than a bit insincere.
With most of the film shot at night, there is at times an almost nourish feel to the proceedings under the surprisingly effective direction of journeyman Roy Del Ruth. There are surely things you’ll take from Captured! and find in almost every prisoner-of-war picture made since.
With an easy investment of 75 minutes, this one is well worth the time if you can happen to find it.