Europe, 1940, and the Second World War is in its early stages, with a number of British prisoners marched across France towards Germany for many miles, exhausting them but not dimming their spirit, though at times it may flicker a little when the cobbles on the roads are no assistance to their journey. As the men march, occasionally stumbling, taking what water they can to quench their thirst in this heat, they don’t talk to each other for the ordeal is too gruelling for chat, but they do remember what has brought them to this place and more importantly what they have left back in their homeland. Corporal Horsfall (Jack Warner), for example, recalls his wife and the good times he shared with his best friend Private Evans (Mervyn Johns)…
The theme was that the ordinary life they had basically abandoned to fight in the war was what they were desperately striving to return to, that status quo so harshly disrupted by the conflict, and that was as imperative to protect as it was to stop the Nazis slaughtering millions across the world. This would have been duly noted by the audiences of the day who in 1946 would be essentially sympathising with the wish to go back to what things had been like before, that apparent stability which perhaps now seemed out of reach, rendering the large amount of war movies to come all the more popular since they reminded the public what it had all been for. Ealing Studios were no different to contributing to this than any other British studio.
And The Captive Heart was their, for its day, unusual contribution, as it detailed for the first time what all too many returning Brits suffered through, the Prisoner of War camps, which at least made this stand out from the other war movies that concentrated on the fighting. Here those incessant thoughts of home informed the drama, as there wasn’t five minutes that went by without the inmates thinking of their loved ones in Blighty. Well, apart from one character, who was played by Michael Redgrave; he was an impostor, not because he was a spy in the ranks, but because he was a Captain in the Czech army, Karel Hasek, who had escaped from a concentration camp (forgive the filmmakers this conceit when in truth very few prisoners escaped from those hellholes) and assumed the identity of a British officer.
That officer was already dead and Hasek merely took his uniform and papers, but the ruse hasn’t gone too well seeing as how he’s been recaptured, though the tension arises from wondering if he will be found out and sent back to certain death. When his fellow prisoners discover the truth – his fluent German was a giveaway, and indeed has made the Commandant suspicious – they close ranks around him and see to it he is protected, even to the extent of having him write to the dead man’s widow (Redgrave’s actual wife Rachel Kempson) so as not to arouse too many questions. But here was where the film tended to falter, in that by concentrating so much on the events back in Britain, it cleaved rather close to melodrama, only of the most mundane variety, which meant you felt the crushing boredom of the camp all too clearly, not the most exciting of plotlines.
Not helping was that most of the actors slotted into various “types”, obviously to create some universal experience but coming across as cliché-ridden for too many scenes, and the way this had been parodied down the years didn’t bolster what at the time would have been intended to be emotional and inspiring. All those caveats aside, that cast was professional enough to breathe life into their roles, with Warner, the future Dixon of Dock Green, a standout as the no-nonsense prisoner instrumental in keeping up morale and proving just because they were incarcerated did not mean they were going to roll over and comply with everything the Nazis wanted. The scene where the inmates drown out the patriotic German tunes over the tannoy with a stirring rendition of Roll Out the Barrel may have been “adapted” from Casablanca, but it was effective in this context too. Basil Radford was the embodiment of the sterling British officer, Gordon Jackson laboured under blindness, and so on, but there was little here you wouldn’t expect. Music by Alan Rawsthorne.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray looks sharp, sounds clear and has an introduction by an expert for its sole extra feature.]