Back in 1973, the British author and critic Brian Aldiss argued that British writers like John Wyndham had a nasty habit of depicting the end of the world as a cosy catastrophe in which survival demanded little in the way of hardship, sacrifice or philosophical re-orientation. The classic example of this style of science fiction story is Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in that, after escaping a London full of man-eating plants, the protagonists settle into a Sussex mansion where tea is drunk, cake is made, and the class system endures. Though somewhat unfair to Wyndham, it is easy to see how the generation that survived World War II might have come to imagine the end of the world in terms of rose gardens turned into veg patches rather than rape, cannibalism and disease. To this day, popular British representations of World War II are far more likely to dwell on ration books and period kitchens than the experiences of men who spent their formative years dodging bullets and climbing over corpses.
Completed so soon after the end of World War II that it opens with an intertitle boasting its use of location filming in the “British zone of Germany”, Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart is every inch the cosy catastrophe. However, while the hardships of war are downplayed and the British imperial class system is never once called into question, you cannot question Dearden’s commitment to the idea of eternal English values.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the Fall of France, the survivors of the British Expeditionary force are marched through France and into Germany where they will spend the rest of the war in a POW camp. The march itself is beautifully shot as hundreds of real British soldiers stream past burned-out windmills and overturned tanks. Intercut with this location footage is somewhat less convincing footage of actors on sound-stages as Dearden shows us the beaten men marching and the memories that float through their minds as they walk.
The Captive Heart is an elegantly structured film in so far as each of the major characters is equipped with a back-story that helps us to make sense of the characters and how they will react to the problems they face. For example, Jack Warner’s Corporal Ted Horsfall is old enough to have fought in World War I and joined up out of a misguided desire to revisit his sexually adventurous youth. By contrast, his diminutive Welsh business partner Don Evans (Mervyn Johns) seems to have been dragged along by a weird combination of friendship and frustration with his failure to have children with his wife. The fact that both men were pushed to war by a sense of sexual malaise not only sets them up for some interesting character arcs, it also sets the tone for a film that is surprisingly candid in its depictions of wartime relationships. Indeed, for every uplifting story of a ‘girl back home’ who refuses to give up on her brave soldier boy, there is a story about men who abandon their wives and people writing poison pen-letters in the hope of making couples break-up. The tone is melodramatic in the finest tradition of 1940s British film but the attention to social detail and the sheer variety of relationships touched on by the film are genuinely impressive.
The narrative (such as it is) is dominated by the group’s progression through time from first arrival in the camp to the moment they go home. As one might expect of a film from this era, The Captive Heart never thinks to question the British class structure and so all of the officers are noble toffs while the enlisted men are stout-hearted members of the working class. Neither group fraternises with the other but when a problem occurs, they all pitch in and defer to the person with the snootiest accent. By and large, the problems the group face are not exactly earth-shattering… We see them struggle to burn cherished possessions when it gets cold, we see them celebrate when Christmas brings aid packages and it isn’t long before the POWs are organising betting pools and setting up theatre troops. The oppressive groupthink and dark undercurrents of Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 are so conspicuously absent that you actually begin to wonder why any of these men would ever want to go home.
The biggest problem faced by the group as they while away the months in their German holiday camp is Michael Redgrave’s Geoffrey Mitchell. We first encounter Mitchell when he steps forward to serve as a translator between the British and German officers. Dearden then shows us Mitchell in a foreign uniform stripping a British soldier and stealing all of his documentation. Initially, Mitchell’s presence is played for tension as the film suggests that he might be some form of German spy. When small errors start creeping into his story, the British get worried and consider stringing him up until Mitchell admits that he is actually a Czech officer who escaped from Dachau only to wind up behind British lines. The British not only accept this story at face value but also devote themselves to protecting Mitchell’s assumed identity in case the Gestapo rumble him and send him back to Dachau. In order to keep up the pretence that Geoffrey Mitchell is alive and well, the British urge the Czech officer to write to his wife only for him to discover that the real Geoffrey Mitchell had walked away from his wife and children. Surprised and delighted by the change in her estranged husband, Mitchell’s wife (Rachel Kempson) begins to fall in love.
Aside from strong characterisation and a strong group cast, The Captive Heart also benefits from an unapologetic commitment to a very specific political ideal, namely that England and Englishness can endure everything including another World War. In fact, Redgrave’s Czech officer is something of an interstitial figure as his growing love for Mitchell’s widow is skilfully interwoven with a growing love for the English born of their many kindnesses. There’s even a montage of people playing cricket as a voice-over talks about fruit trees coming into bloom in the back garden.
The reason The Captive Heart was released so soon after the end of World War II is that Ealing Studios began making it before the war had even ended. This means not only that the film was made without being touched by the realities of war but also that it was made with very little idea as to how England (or indeed Britain) might fit into a post-War Europe. Unsurprisingly, the film resonates with a distinctly imperial mind-set in that English values are shown to be not only eternal and immutable but also exportable to Eastern Europe where tales of English decency and sacrifice would doubtless fill the squares with people desperate to try their hand at cricket. Seen in this light, Michael Redgrave isn’t so much seduced into English as colonised by it.
As Charles Barr explains in his admirable introduction to the film, The Captive Heart has traditionally been seen as either a work of cinematic realism marred by melodrama or a work of cinematic melodrama with a number of nicely realistic touches. Barr is arguably correct to say that the second characterisation is the more fruitful of the two but what he glosses over is the idea of The Captive Heart as a work of wartime propaganda that cheers the returning soldiers and rallies the home nations as the Empire returns to business as normal.
As dated and problematic as these sentiments may be, there is no denying that Basil Dearden lays out his thesis with real panache. The Immortality of Englishness resonates in every montage, every character beat, every swell of the score and every flashback to the women at home. While some directors struggle to find a theme amidst the thousand acts of creativity comprising every film, Dearden bends every aspect of his film to the task at hand. That is a real accomplishment and while the message Dearden is trying to communicate may have lost its appeal, you cannot deny the force and elegance with which it is delivered.
Freshly restored and looking pretty damn fine, this latest release of The Captive Heart is an excellent showcase for ideas that have begun to feel more than a little embarrassing. The only regrettable thing about this release is the lack of extras placing both film and ethos in their correct historical contexts. The Sun has long since set on the British Empire.