Saturday Matinee 2012 046: Colditz: Escape of the Birdmen (1971, TV)

Colditz-birdmenDVDThis is one of several films made about the notorious Colditz prison in the mountains of Saxony. An old castle, Colditz — officially Oflag IVc — was believed to be escape-proof — and so the Nazis sent the worst and most incorrigible Allied escapers there, almost all of whom were British and Commonwealth, Dutch and French officers (German POW management segregated officers from other ranks, but frequently mixed nationalities and branches of service). 

The strategy of putting all your most ingenious escapers in a single, however formidable, prison, would seem to have some obvious deficiencies, and in fact, some 300 escape attempts were made, with 31 escapers succeeding (British, French and Dutch prisoners). There were tunnels, rope alpinism down the site’s 250-foot walls and cliffs, and even a 2-seat glider with a 33-foot wingspan (the camp was liberated by American ground troops before the glider was ready). If ever there was a prison camp made for the movies, Colditz, with its 1000-year-old stone castle and international gang of artful inmates, was the place.

So what other Colditz films were there? The Colditz Story (1955), a cracking black-and-white adventure directed by Guy Hamilton who would go on to direct Connery and Moore as James Bond, and Battle of Britain and Force 10 from Navarone; a Colditz TV movie (2005), a three hour monster with Jason Priestly and Tom Hardy; and in the next year or so there’s supposed to be a Blackadder film with a Colditz theme filming, which would be the first major feature Colditz comedy; and there’s even been Nazi home movies turn up from the prison.

In this film, an American OSS operative (Doug McClure) and a Norwegian physicist (Rene Auberjonois — apparently all Europeans are interchangeable in Hollywood) are thrown in the prison. They were pretending to be evading aviators and the Germans have not pierced their cover – yet. A predominantly American group of escape planners have been tunneling and building a glider. 

The German camp commandant (Richard Basehart) is a decent sort whose duty, which he will fulfill, is to keep the prisoners locked up; but he’s not above sharing a drink with the American Senior Ranking Officer, plaid stoically by cowboy actor (and former baseball star, wasn’t he?) Chuck Connors.

The SRO does not trust the OSS guy. Nobody trusts the Germans, of course.

When the Gestapo begin closing in on the Norwegian scientist, whose importance the movie characters don’t understand but is clear to us viewers (he’s a nuclear physicist), the race is on: can he be sprung before it’s too late?

Colditz: Escape of the Birdmen has appeared also as The Birdmen and as many other titles. If it’s a POW movie and has Chuck Connors in it, it’s this same film, whatever label they stick on it.

It’s a decent show, at its best when it dwells on exposition of the prisoners’ many escape schemes.

The prisoners’ usage of a banned folk song to torment the Nazis is a high point, and the song, Die gedanken sind frei, has high earworm potential. The message of the song is this: “You can lock up my body, but my thoughts are still free.”

Acting and Production

The actors are all solid journeymen, familiar to any American TV watcher of the period. Along with those mentioned above, Max Baer Jr. of the Western series Bonanza also has a supporting role.

Despite its TV roots, a fair bit of change was spent on convincing locations and exteriors. The film doesn’t feel TV cheap.

Accuracy and Weapons

colditz_mapThis film is the least historically accurate of any of the Colditz flicks, with the possible exception of the yet unscreened Blackadder outing. The locations and sets are right, generally; exteriors of actual Colditz are used.

The glider looks only a little like the surviving photographs of the actual Colditz glider (which, sadly, was left in the attic when the prison was handed over to Soviet forces, who reportedly burned it for firewood). 

No great effort seems to have been taken on the Nazis’ weapons, vehicles or equipment.

CGI is not a factor in this 40-year-old movie.

The bottom line

It’s an hour and a quarter of jailhouse resistance and escape planning. If you expect to have a little fun it might be for you. If you’re expecting an accurate depiction of Oflag IVc or any of the real-world escapes, you’ve got the wrong DVD here.

 

P.S.

A small bonus for you: here’s a couple of PBS Nova links:

  • The glider, which was called the Colditz Cock.
  • The successful escapes (and some unsuccessful ones). Some of these are staggering in their ingenuity.

Unfortunately the 2001 NOVA episode on Colditz escapes does not appear to be online in full-episode format, at least not on PBS’s website.

7 thoughts on “Saturday Matinee 2012 046: Colditz: Escape of the Birdmen (1971, TV)

  1. Nick

    My great uncle Stan allegedly got a portion of arse cheek shot off attempting to escape from Colditz.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Perhaps he figures in one of the books. The British officer who was head of the escape committee, P.R. Reid, wrote one, and the German who was the security chief, whose name eludes me, wrote another. Most of the more recent books depend on these two, but some of them also use declassified stuff from the British National Archives.

      The Germans kept a museum of escapes at the camp for VIP visitors.

      One of the escapees got out several times in seven attempts. On his last one he simply leaped the fence, and was shot in the back and killed. The Germans gave him a military funeral.

      At war’s end Hitler ordered the prominent prisoners (there were a couple relations of the King, the son of General Haig of WWI fame, an OSS team dropped into Hungary, and Douglas Bader, for example) murdered. SS officer Gottlob Berger signed for them, hauled them off… and took them to the US lines. Berger did time for unrelated war crimes, and then was part of extreme-right, borderline-Nazi politics after his release, so it wasn’t that he was a creampuff… but even a Nazi has his limits, apparently. This one, anyway.

      The reports of that US unit and the one that liberated the camp would be interesting. The unit that liberated the camp was only there a short time because Colditz was inside the demarcation line for the Soviet sector.

  2. Aesop

    This is the only Colditz movie I’ve seen.
    But besides noting its place in film history, the news that it’s going to be sent up by Rowan Atkinson and the Blackadder gang is cause for celebration. One can only hope they live up to their past efforts when they hit the big screen.

Comments are closed.