Saturday, September 26, 2020

Stubs - Captured

Captured! (1933) Starring: Leslie Howard, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Paul Lukas, Margaret Lindsay, Arthur Hohl, John Bleifer, William Le Maire Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Screenplay by Edward Chodorov. Based on the short story "Fellow Prisoners" by Sir Philip Gibbs in Liberty (13 Sep 1930). Produced by Hal B, Wallis. Run time: 72 minutes. US Black and White. Drama, War.

In the years before America’s involvement in World War II, a subject Hollywood still returns to, the Great War was World War I, the war to end all wars. Films like Wings (1927) and Hell’s Angels (1930), set their melodramas against the epic of the war, concentrating in both films on the early air corps that were new to the conflict.

Captured is much less epic, concentrating on life in a POW camp, 15 miles from the front. We never learn about how most of the men end up in the camp, only that they do. One rainy night, a popular setting for action in the film, British Captain Fred Allison (Leslie Howard) arrives, in a group that also includes Joe "Tex" Martin (William LeMaire), as about as stereotypical a Texan as you can imagine, and Strogin (John Bleifer), who appears to be quite mad, as he laughs uncontrollably and at the oddest times. They arrive to an already tense situation, as represented by the incessant complaints from prisoner Cocky (Arthur Hohl). When a new arrival, Lt. Haversham (Phillip Faversham), takes a gun from one of the jailers and kills himself, the others revolt.

When a new arrival, Lt. Haversham (Phillip Faversham),
kills himself, the other prisoners revolt.

It is quickly and brutally shut down by the guards, who gun down as many prisoners as they can. As a result, the remaining prisoners are placed in a dark basement for several weeks. As the ranking officer, Allison goes to see the new commandant, Carl Ehrlich (Paul Lukas), and suggests that the Germans let the prisoners build their own huts. Ehrlich is open to Allison’s suggestion as long as the Captain will take full responsibility for his men.

British Captain Fred Allison (Leslie Howard) and Commandant
 Carl Ehrlich (Paul Lukas) were once classmates at Oxford.

Turns out the two men went to Oxford, though at different times. Still, Allison remembers Ehrlich’s fencing prowess. Over breakfast, the two even reminiscence about one professor both men have. During their catchup talk, more prisoners arrive, one of which is Jack Digby (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), whom Allison knows quite well. Digby was the last person to speak with Monica (Margaret Lindsay), Allison’s wife. We’ve seen, in a flashback, the whirlwind nature of Fred and Monica’s relationship. The two had only known each other for six days before Fred shipped out. In that time, they had married and bought a house.

After a whirlwind romance, Fred says good-bye to his wife Monica (Margaret Lindsay).

Fred is happy to see Digby again and repeatedly tries to get him to open up about Monica, since the last letter he had from her mentioned the two of them were going to the theater. Digby tries to downplay it, but it is obvious he has a secret he can’t tell Fred. It gets revealed when the prisoners get mail. Allison doesn’t get a letter from Monica, but Digby does. In her letter, Monica professes her love for Digby.

Fred and Jack Digby (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) wait for a
letter from home. Digby receives one from Allison's wife.

Racked by guilt, Digby is determined to escape. The camp is conveniently located nearby a German airfield where the planes' engines are tested twice-daily. While the sound reminds the men of the war they’re missing out on, it gives Digby an idea.

Without help from Fred, Digby makes an escape. However, at the same time, Strogin rapes and kills Elsa, the milkmaid (Joyce Coad), whom we’ve seen him eyeing before. Digby sheds his own coat for one of a German officer and then proceeds to cut his way through the barbed wire around the airfield. He has to fight his way though, but he does manage to steal a plane and fly it back over the lines. Thinking he’s a German, his allies shoot the plane down.

Considered a hero for escaping, he is taken back to England that night so he can meet up with Monica. But no sooner has he escaped than Elsa’s body is discovered. With his coat found, with a letter addressed to him identifying the coat as his, Ehrlich wants Digby returned to face the rape and murder charges and wants Fred to co-sign the request. At first, Fred doesn’t want to, but when he’s shown the letter, he sees that it came from Monica. That seems to be enough to convince him.

The letter is delivered via a drop from an enemy plane and, believing that it must be true, Digby is arrested soon after landing in England and is taken to headquarters with Monica in tow. Even though he pleads his innocence, it is decided to return him for prosecution. If he’s innocent, then he can prove it (No one discusses the idea that, even innocent, he’ll once again be a POW).

Flown back and returned under a white flag of truce, Digby is sent back to the prison camp. There, he learns that Fred agreed to his return after reading Monica’s letter. He provides no defense and is convicted by a German military tribunal. His sentence is to be shot in the morning.

Meanwhile, Strogin feels remorse and writes a brief confession to Fred before hanging himself for his sins. Fred finds the letter, but delays in showing it to Ehrlich until Digby is standing in front of the firing squad. Fred realizes that Digby’s death will not make Monica love him, so he finally (and I mean finally) steps forward and shows the letter to Ehrlich.

Fred goes over last-minute plans with his men about their escape plans.

Now a prisoner again, Digby and Fred make amends about Monica. Fred also has a plan to get all of the men out of the prison and back to their home countries. Word is spread to watch the front gate at six. At that time, after giving last-minute instructions, Fred engages a couple of German officers in conversation. Feigning falling down, Fred manages to steal one of the guard’s guns and kill both of them. Commandeering the machine gun at the front tower, Fred manages to hold off all the guards until the men have escaped through the front gates.

Fred mans the machine gun to hold off the guards.

There is a pitched battle at the airfield but most of the men, including Digby, manage to steal planes and fly out.

Fred is eventually killed by a hand grenade that destroys the tower he’s in. Not only does Digby fly the formation over the prison camp, but Ehrlich also gives him a final salute.

Shot in 29 days on the Warner Bros backlot, the film cost about $245,000. The final sequence, shot at the Grand Central Airport in Glendale (now Walt Disney’s Grand Central Creative Campus), utilized 75 planes and 1500 actors. Released on July 25, 1933, the film was not a box office sensation, though I don’t know how well it actually did.

Most of the film is set at night, which I understand was a creative choice of the director, Roy Del Ruth. As a result, much of the film has a claustrophobic feel to it, which helps emphasize the men's state of mind as captives. The situation of the camp so close to an airfield seems more geared to drama than reality, but I don’t know if that was in the original story or not.

Something that doesn’t resonate today is the returning of an escaped soldier to the enemy like Digby was, based on charges that could have been trumped up. At least in modern terms, that seems inconceivable. However, World War I took place when old ways had not yet been given up, so that might have happened. There is an “Old World rules” feel to the proceedings.

It is interesting to note that despite the use of mustard gas and brutal trench warfare, there were Christmastime ceasefires that have been documented before. While it may seem odd when one of the British soldiers handing Digby over to the Germans even says “See you at Christmas”, that was also one of the realities of World War I.

The acting of the main cast is pretty good. Leslie Howard plays a rather mild-mannered leader for the prisoners, in some ways a precursor to Alec Guinness’s Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957). He uses his word to try and give his fellow prisoners a better life in the camp. Nicholson gives his men a purpose, building a bridge for the enemy, while Fred gets them to build their own housing. While Nicholson’s realization causes him to destroy the bridge, almost by accident, Fred leads his men in a mass escape. But the big moment for Howard’s acting is the letter from Strogin. He knows that it would exonerate Digby and you can really sense his temptation to sit on it rather than disclosing it. He finally lets the reality of letting a man die for a crime he didn’t commit outweigh his fantasy of making Monica love him through default.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Leslie Howard appear in Captured.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who wanted to play American tough guys on film, is once again given a British role to play. He’s good, though I’m not sure I was ever convinced he was really British. You can really sense the secret he is carrying weighing on him. He really wants to tell Fred about his love for Monica but he knows that it would hurt his friend. And even though Fred tried to punish him by helping bring him back to face the rape charges and then let him also be executed for a crime he knows he didn’t commit, there is still enough of a bond between them that he wants to go back to the camp after the escape to help him. I like Fairbanks better here than in Gunga Din (1939), where he once again plays a British soldier.

Paul Lukas plays Commandant Ehrlich in Captured.

Paul Lukas’ Ehrlich reminded me of Karl Arnstedt (John Darrow) in Hell’s Angels, another German officer who had supposedly attended Oxford only to have to fight against his alumni. Neither feels comfortable with the cruelty of war against old friends. Ehrlich agrees to give his prisoners better treatment even before finding out he and Fred both attended the same old school.

Of the supporting characters, three really stand out. Cocky, played by Arthur Hohl, is about as annoying as a man could get with a grating voice repeatedly complaining about practically everything. There is nothing worse than going through a bad shared experience than to have someone narrating for you all of the obvious problems.

Leslie Howard, Arthur Hohl, William Le Maire, and J. Carrol Naish in Captured! (1933).

Joe "Tex" Martin, played by William Le Maire, is just about as bad as a stereotypical portrayal of a Texan gets. As a native one myself, I find his version to be as antiquated as it gets and it gets about as tiresome as Hohl’s Cocky.

And then there is Strogin, played by John Bleifer. He enters camp already crazy with a laugh that would send shivers through me in real life. The fact that he is Elsa’s killer is telegraphed early on when we see him admiring her from afar. His confession and self-punishment are actually a surprise given what we know today about psychopaths. But this was part of the code of Hollywood, that bad guys get punished, even if it was unenforced at the time.

Joyce Coad was nearing the end of her career at the age of 16.

As a note, Joyce Coad, who plays Elsa, was once considered a child prodigy and got her start in show biz reading children’s stories on KHJ-AM radio in Los Angeles at the age of 5. She would be signed by MGM and would appear in several movies, but by the time she was 16 and appearing in Captured!, her movie career was practically over.

Captured! does not rise to the level of other films like Wings or even Hells Angels, but it is not a bad film. I had seen bits of the film before, so I wanted to be sure to see the film when I had the chance again. I would say that the film is not for everyone, though it can be very engrossing. If you’re looking for big action, then you may be disappointed. However, the acting of Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. make it worthwhile when you have a chance to see it.

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