Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Wooden Horse, The (1950)


Main image of Wooden Horse, The (1950)
DirectorJack Lee
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
 Wessex Film Productions
Screenplay/Original NovelEric Williams
PhotographyC.M. Pennington-Richards

Cast: Leo Genn (Peter); David Tomlinson (Phil); Anthony Steel (John); David Greene (Bennett); Peter Burton (Nigel)

Show full cast and credits

A group of Allied POWs held captive by the Nazis in Stalag Luft III hatch an audacious plan (inspired by Greek mythology) to use an exercise vaulting horse to disguise their escape tunnelling activities.

Show full synopsis

Based on Eric Williams' novel The Tunnel Escape, The Wooden Horse (d. Jack Lee, 1950) brought one of World War II's most famous escape stories to the cinema only five years after the end of the war, and established a model for many similar films that followed.

Lee cut his cinematic teeth on wartime documentaries for the Crown Film Unit, and the influence of John Grierson, Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings can be seen in the structure of his film, in its austere realism, and the documentary 'look' on screen, offering a convincing feel for place. This is particularly evident in the tunnelling scenes, where there are resonances of some of the earlier Grierson industrial documentaries, and in the 'hut' scenes, where the camera lingers on inactivity and the minutiae of the POWs' actions.

Filmed on location in Germany, in a specially reconstructed POW Camp (the existing ones were still holding displaced persons at this point), the filming suffered from bad weather, indecision, and delays. Principal shooting commenced before a definitive ending was decided on, and, with the film significantly over budget, Lee had left the film before producer Ian Dalrymple shot the existing ending himself.

The film's significance lies in its early (in relation to the real events and to the war) re-telling of the story, and the blunt, matter-of-fact way it represents of those involved. The central characters are not shown as heroes, but rather as dispirited airmen simply following their duty to escape and cause disruption to the enemy. Indeed there is, at times, something rather comic about their adventures, something Lee does not stint from facing.

An honesty of characterisation and minimalist acting prevent the film from slipping into stereotype and jingoism. Indeed, as the film progresses, Lee allows the petty grievances and jealousies of the POWs to feature, briefly showing an unpleasant side to many of the characters. When one escapee has to kill an enemy soldier it is not without a range of emotions including fear and remorse - similar to the postmistress in Went the Day Well? (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942). This alone distinguishes The Wooden Horse from the films that followed it.

Freddie Gaffney

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Preparations (2:15)
2. Dinner diversion (4:11)
3. In the bar (4:33)
Original Poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Captive Heart, The (1946)
Colditz (1972-74)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
Finch, Peter (1916-1977)
Greene, David (1921-2003)
Lee, Jack (1913-2002)
Tomlinson, David (1917-2000)