Today: July 10, 2024

The Colditz Story

By – Steve Lillie – The Colditz Story is a classic British war film. Arguably one of the classic British war films.

By
Steve Lillie

The Colditz Story is a classic
British war film. Arguably one of the classic British war films.
But
it’s more than just a good film. It’s based on a true story which, according to
the documentary on the DVD, is quite faithful to the real events. Making The
Colditz Story all the more remarkable.

The
Second World War defined a generation. A generation that have become almost
mythic in their stoic heroism against the evil of National Socialist Germany.
It’s important that films such as this are preserved and watched, not just
because they are great films but because they are a documentary record of that
time, made not long after the event. In the case of The Colditz Story, just 15
years separate the film from the real events. What’s more Pat Reid (played in the film by John Mills) wrote the book that inspired the screenplay, was an
actual Colditz escapee.

The
British have always done war stories very well. Stories like The Great Escape, Ice Cold In Alex, The
Cruel Sea,
and The Damn Busters
to name but a few. Often these films stand in sharp contrast to the flag-waving
propaganda vehicles produced by other countries (who shall remain nameless).
British war films rarely stoop to bloodthirsty gung-ho-ism. Instead they are
content to tell the intimate ‘little stories’ of the more human side of the war
effort; the personalities and stiff- upper-lip resilience that never
surrendered to Nazi aggression.

And
this is certainly true of the characters that drive The Colditz Story. Although
they’re all combatants, their status as prisoners of war (POWs) means that they
are no longer part of some big faceless war-machine. They’re just human beings
with very human faults and foibles. The story of Colditz Castle is the ultimate
tale of man against the system. In this case men under-fed, stir crazy, desperate,
and bundled together in the ultimate “escape-proof” stronghold.

Although
not originally designed to hold POWs, the German military machine did their
utmost to make Colditz Castle escape-proof. Every inch was covered by armed
guards, machine gun towers and extra wire fences to augment the already
daunting walls. In fact the guards actually out numbered the prisoners.

Despite
this, from the very beginning, the POWs had only one thought: ESCAPE! It was not only their duty but also
their driving passion. So begins the deadly cat and mouse game between guards
and their captives. As you’d expect from over a hundred men with nothing else
to do, they come up with some ingenious escape schemes, often facilitated by
the nature of the castle itself.
But there is more to The Colditz Story than escape attempts and plucky
backchat. The story is told through the eyes of the British inmates, naturally,
although they cooperate with all the nationalities who found themselves cooped
up in Coldtiz Castle. And this gives us some of the best bits in the film. The
Gallic gall of the French, the pluck of the Poles, the daring of the Dutch.
Filmic shorthand may mean that every nationality is sketched out with a broad
brush-stroke but they never become fantastical stereotypes. This is a tale that
rings true because it is true.

It
would be easy to imagine how anyone in this situation would be kowtowed by the
oppressive regime of Colditz Caste, but the defiant banter and goon baiting
never eases up for a moment. In the end you can only watch in wonder at the
tenacity, ingenuity, and bravery of these men.

It
may be almost 70 years since the first real escape from Colditz but thanks to
the power of film, this is a story that will never lose its power to enthrall
or inspire.

Park
Circus’s new HD restoration of The Colditz Story, in lush widescreen, is out
this week, accompanied by a pleasing array of extras including a must-watch documentary
about the men behind the real Colditz story.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email: writerpaula@icloud.com

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