The Colditz Story (1955)

Lionel Jeffries and John Mills in The Colditz Story (1955)

Escape from Colditz

There is a scene early on in "The Colditz Story" where a German Officer reprimands 4 British prisoners for laughing, mocking them over the British sense of humour. That British sense of humour is a big part of the movie because whilst based on true accounts of what went on in Colditz during WWII where the worst offenders were put there is a lot of comedy in the dramatization. It is one of the many reasons why "The Colditz Story" is still one of the great prisoner of war movies, not as epic as some but one which still entertains whilst also getting across aspects of what life as a prisoner of war in Colditz was like.

Pat Reid (John Mills - The Long Memory) and Mac (Christopher Rhodes) find themselves marched into Colditz castle where they meet Harry Tyler (Lionel Jeffries - First Men in the Moon) and Jimmy Winslow (Bryan Forbes - The Million Pound Note), 2 other prisoners who have tried to escape from other prisons and found themselves dumped in the castle. They are not alone as they see truck loads of other prisoners of war show up full of soldiers from Poland, France, Holland and Blighty and whilst they are informed that those who attempt to escape will be shot it stops none of them from trying. In fact is a problem as there is no organization and escape attempts from the French cause problems for the British until they all finally agree to work together.

Bryan Forbes as Jimmy Winslow in The Colditz Story (1955)

The simplest way to explain "The Colditz Story" to those who have never seen it is to describe it as a forerunner to "The Great Escape" but stressing that what you see is very much based on true accounts. As such we have elements of all the troublemakers put in the one prison, we have the camaraderie between prisoners, the sudden distractions when a blitz is on as well as the more elaborate escape attempts with look outs and signals. Watching it now all these escape elements feel more like a brief snapshot as the detail to how they go about it, from getting uniforms to tools for digging is missing but you get an idea of the ingenuity which went in to some of these escapes.

What you get a lot more of in "The Colditz Story" is humour, British humour with many of the escape attempts being tinged with humour such as one which features some leap frogging. In a way it softens the dramatic side of the movie but at the same time delivers that expected element of "laughing in the face of danger". It means that whilst we do get the emotional aspect of life in Colditz such as those who know their only chance out is over the wire because they are too recognizable for a clever escape the actual impact of it ends up softened.

But whilst the emotional impact of "The Colditz Story" may now feel watered down the performances are most certainly not with John Mills leading the way with another solid war movie performance which mixes humour with angst and stiff upper lip. Mills may be the star but the cast which also includes Lionel Jeffries, Bryan Forbes, Ian Carmichael and Christopher Rhodes all work well to deliver entertaining characters who make you smile.

What this all boils down to is that "The Colditz Story" is still a great movie, a forerunner to "The Great Escape" in so many ways and just as entertaining. The element of humour may end up watering down the emotional side of the drama but with the knowledge that the events in the movie are based on fact helps to make it still real behind the laughs.