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Captive Heart, The (1946)

Courtesy of Canal + Image UK Ltd

Main image of Captive Heart, The (1946)
35mm, black and white, 98 mins
Directed byBasil Dearden
Production CompanyEaling Studios
Produced byMichael Balcon
ScreenplayAngus MacPhail
 Guy Morgan
Original storyPatrick Kirwan
PhotographyDouglas Slocombe
MusicAlan Rawsthorne

Cast: Michael Redgrave (Capt. Karel Hasek/'Capt. Geoffrey'); Mervyn Johns (Private Dai Evans); Basil Radford (Major Oassy Dalrymple); Jack Warner (Corporal Ted Horsfall); Jimmy Hanley (Private James H. Matthews); Gordon Jackson (Lieutenant David Lennox)

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A Czech captain takes the identity of a British officer in a Prisoner of War camp. In order to allay suspicions he writes to the dead man's wife as her husband, rekindling her love by his tone and words when she and her husband had been cooling off in their relationship.

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Made only a few months after the end of WW2, The Captive Heart was one of the first British films to show defeated, captured British troops - something that, for reasons of morale, would have been impossible while the war was on. For Michael Balcon, there was a personal interest in the subject; his wife Aileen had spent the war working for the Red Cross, and helping repatriated prisoners readjust after their internment. The film was shot in a real British POW camp in Germany where co-screenwriter Guy Morgan had himself been held.

The trajectory of the narrative (apart from a few flashbacks) runs almost the whole length of the war: from Dunkirk to the Armistice. The contrast with later prison-camp movies is striking; there's none of the heroics of The Great Escape (US, 1963), The Colditz Story (d. Guy Hamilton, 1955) or The Wooden Horse (d. Jack Lee, 1950). Early on the prisoners do start digging a tunnel, but it's soon discovered by the Germans, after which the inmates apparently forget any idea of escaping and settle down, in typical British style, to 'make the best of it'.

As so often with Ealing, The Captive Heart is about community, following a number of characters as they learn to live together and tolerate each other. Soon after the prisoners have arrived, we see adjustments already being made, culminating in Corporal Horsfall (Jack Warner, in his first role for Ealing), executing summary justice on a wide-boy cockney private (Jimmy Hanley).

Later, two linked sequences sum up the film's theme. Karel Hasek, an escaped Czech prisoner, has adopted the persona of a dead English officer to evade the Nazis; he takes to writing to the dead man's wife to maintain his disguise. Responding, she describes wartime life in their village, and we see this peaceful rural spot with her voice-over. He, in turn, describes life in the camp, as the camera pans over various communal activities: gardening, games, model-making, while a picture of George VI is put up to preside over this "little piece of England".

Both views - POW camp and English village - are perhaps slightly too idyllic to be credible, but the film's aim was clearly to heal the wounds of war-torn Britain: to reassure people that the national virtues of tolerance and stoicism were still intact, and that those who had spent the war as prisoners had also 'done their bit'.

Philip Kemp

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Video Clips
Extract 1 (2:39)
Extract 2 (0:49)
Extract 3 (3:11)
Wooden Horse, The (1950)
Colditz (1972-74)
Tenko (1981-84)
Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)
Hanley, Jimmy (1918-1970)
Jackson, Gordon (1923-1990)
Johns, Mervyn (1899-1992)
MacPhail, Angus (1903-1962)
Radford, Basil (1897-1952)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)
Warner, Jack (1896-1981)