Saturday Matinee 2013 048: Colditz (TV, 2005)

Colditz 2005 DVDWe looked at the earlier (1971) Colditz: Escape of the Birdmen movie a few weeks ago; this is another in the long line of jailbreak-from-Nazis-films that began with the Colditz Story in 1955. This version is a two-part, three-hours-total miniseries from fifty years after the original, with no digging tunnels, no building gliders, no masses of Americans who weren’t in the real OFLAG IVc, but some fairly realistic escape scenes and methods, using the sort of escapes that the Colditz escapees — the few who made a “home run” and the many who were recaptured — actually used. Some, in fact, are exact analogues of real escaps, although they’re used in the service of a dramatic plot with rather more twists and turns than the mundane lives of real prisoners actually had.

One of the best features is the portrayal of MI-9, the clandestine assistance organization for escape and evasion. MI9 is run by jovial, Establishment officer, Lt. Col. Fordham, played by veteran actor James Fox.

Willis and Jack, on the run.

Willis and Jack, on the run.

But the movie is not a documentary. It’s a dramatic production, complete with that old staple, the love triangle. It begins with three Britons escaping from another camp. They are English officers Jack (Tom Hardy) and Willis (Laurence Fox, one of James’s sons and, it turns out, a talented actor in his own right), and Scottish lance-corporal Nicholas McGrade (Damian Lewis, in a character miles apart from his other well-known miniseries performance, Dick Winters in Band of Brothers). None of these characters is a historical figure. Tom’s love interest, whom he left behind in England, is Lizzie Carter (Sophia Myles, made up with a period hairdo which is very rare in modern movies). Lizzie is working as an Air Raid Precautions warden. 

McGrade, back in London and up to no good.

McGrade, back in London and up to no good.

McGrade is resentful of officers and quick to quote leftist cant about the workers and the revolution, but it becomes clear that what is driving him is envy and not love of his fellow proletarian. (It’s rare to see lefty characters portrayed as unsympathetically as they are in Colditz… if you’re a bit of a bolshie yourself, you’ll get angry). In a daring and desperate encounter on the Swiss border, McGrade gets away; Jack and Willis are recaptured and sent to OFLAG IVc at Colditz. The last thing Jack asks McGrade is: to look up Lizzie and tell her Jack’s OK. 

McGrade makes it out, where he’s taken under the wing of MI9, and looks up Lizzie. 

Jack and Willis, back in the clink.

Jack and Willis, back in the clink.

Fritz Werner (Rüdiger Vogler), the security officer at Colditz, tells the gathered escapers that they won’t be able to do it from Colditz. Attempts earn prisoners, including Jack and Willis, time in solitary. Meanwhile, McGrade excels with MI9, despite his is commissioned — he breaks out laughing at the very idea of him in officer’s uniform — and, attracted to Lizzie, tells her a lie: Jack is dead.

The scene is set for a confrontation. In fact, there are several confrontations.

While the love triangle and the inter-British conflict is a bit forced, and some of the subplots are simply puzzling, the prison escape attempts — successful and not — are compelling. Unlike the interpersonal action, the escapes are mostly modeled closely on real Colditz escapes. That was, to us, the strong point of this production.

Acting and Production

The actors are all good. Even Jason Priestley, in a small role despite his high billing in the American DVD, delivers well what the script drops on him — a somewhat unbelievable Canadian flyer, addicted to morphine (his addiction has profound consequences). Laurence Fox, new to us, does very well in a stiff-upper-lip role. Tom Hardy, as a guy whose love for a woman clouds his judgment, is pretty good; we spent most of the movie trying to get over “Dick Winters” speaking with a Scots burr. As we deal with No True Scotsman around here all the time, we have no idea whether Damian Lewis’s accent is correct or not (He’s actually English and an Old Etonian; we didn’t pick up on that in Band of Brothers, so maybe he’s just got a great ear for accents, or a great speech coach).

From the outside, it looks charming. From the inside, with the Nazis locking you in, not so much.

From the outside, it looks charming. From the inside, with the Nazis locking you in, not so much.

The show’s exteriors were largely shot, like the 1971 film, in Colditz.

The castle itself is a major presence in every one of the four major Colditz projects. Its cliffs, forbidding stone walls, and mysterious ancient passages and attics are almost a character of their own, both in the true sage of the Allied prisoners, and the many movies about their heroism and exploits — including this one.

Accuracy and Weapons

Not many guns served all sides during World War II, but the Holeks' vz. 37 did.

Not many guns served all sides during World War II, but the Holeks’ vz. 37 did.

From the very beginning, the Germans have all the guns, and they seem to be fairly correct. For example, guards have Mausers, MG34s, and Czech Těžký kulomet vz. 37s, a gun that was officially used by both Britain (license built as the BESA) and Germany (as the MG 37(t)) in World War II. (Prison guards would probably be equipped with captured or second-line guns, and period photos seem to bear this out).

The use of Colditz itself as a set helps the movie work. In scenes set in London, period vehicles abound and guards have correct British weapons. The Germans’ vehicles are largely not quite right, although the three-wheeled van used by “Willi the Electrician” (which figured in film and in a real escape) was convincing enough.

The movie has little shooting (in the history of actual Colditz, only one officer was shot dead while escaping) and, mercifully, no visible CGI.

The bottom line

The Germans couldn't prevent every escape, but they could make them incredibly difficult -- and did.

The Germans couldn’t prevent every escape, but they could make them incredibly difficult — and did.

Colditz is a good film in the escape genre. With the love-story subplot, it’s one you can watch with your significant other, or several insignifcant others, but it also makes a decent guy flick.

At this point, we’ve reviewed two of the four major Colditz shows: this one and 1971’s Colditz: Escape of the Birdmen. If you’re only going to watch one of the two, this one beats Birdmen, on both accuracy and cinematic grounds, althought it’s a thrill to see the glider make an ahistorical flight (the glider is never mentioned in this show). 

We’ve watched the others, 1955’s British The Colditz Story and the 1971-72 British TV series, and you may well be seeing reviews of them, but not in what’s left of 2013. We don’t want this site’s reviews becoming “all jailbreaks, all the time.”

For More Information

This is a new section of our standard Saturday Matinee format. This section shows will always link to the Amazon, Internet Movie Data Base, and Internet Movie Firearm Data Base pages for those who want more information.

Colditz is available at Amazon (at this writing, for $4.24). The Amazon reviews are usually helpful in making a buying decision.

There is a Colditz page at IMDB. 

There is no reference to Colditz (or to any of the four Colditz movies and TV shows) at IMFDB.