This isn’t a post about Australians in Stalag Luft III, but it does cover some of the universal aspects of the POW experience and so, it counts!
It is well acknowledged that popular perceptions of prisoners of war in Europe have been shaped by their filmic representation. I’ve only viewed three of the classics—Stalag 17 (1953) The Colditz Story (1955) and The Great Escape (1963)—and only through the perspective of light Sunday afternoon entertainment. Accordingly, I thought I should work my way through some of the classics of the prisoner-of-war genre just to see for myself what aspects of captivity have been presented to a film-living public. Thanks to Clare Makepeace, I have a list and I decided to start with the 1959 film, Danger Within and thought I would write up my ‘findings’.
There is no need for me to provide a detailed account of Danger Within’s plot and filmmaking—there are very good ones at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danger_Within) and https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/danger-within-1959-tuesdays-overlooked-film/ —but I do discuss some important plot points and, while I don’t reveal the ‘bad guy’ I do drop a very big hint and there are lots of spoilers.
As far as I am aware, Danger Within has not been released on DVD and so I had the ‘joy’ of watching a very snow-ridden VHS that was close to the end of its useful life. The blurb on the VHS case exclaims ‘400 plan to escape—one plans to betray!’ and the liner notes claim that it is ‘an exciting drama set in an Italian POW camp during WWII’. Well, I don’t know if I would go quite so far as to say ‘exciting’ but I certainly enjoyed it, perhaps because of my research interest; I am not entirely sure I would have been enticed to watch it otherwise. Significantly for my research, the liner notes also state that the film is based on the true exploits of producer Colin Lesslie and writer Michael Gilbert, the author of the book on which the film is based. Gilbert joined the Honourable Artillery Company when war broke out and served in North Africa and Italy. He was captured in 1943, imprisoned in northern Italy and escaped after the Italian surrender. [https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/feb/10/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries]
I read Danger Within—released as Death in Captivity in Britain—a few years ago before I started my current research. I purchased it at a specialist crime fiction shop. Given the blurb ‘When a man is found suffocated to death in an escape tunnel under impossible conditions, British POWs turn detective’, I expected a classic ‘who dunnit’ but found it difficult going and less than engaging, so promptly put it at the back of my bookcase. From what I can recall, there are considerable differences between book and film, including some name changes, more of an interest in crime solving, and the name of the theatre production which covers the mass escape. Given I enjoyed the film, I must revisit the book at some stage if, for no other reason, than to see how the raw material of the book morphed into the aforementioned ‘exciting drama’.
Danger Within is a classic of the British prisoner-of-war film genre and sits alongside other iconic British productions of this era such as The Wooden Horse (1950) and The Colditz Story. I may be researching Stalag Luft III but it seems that there is little difference between this Italian camp and the Luftwaffe’s showcase prisoner of war camp for airmen. Indeed, with only minor script changes (and investment in air force uniforms) the film could very well have been set in Stalag Luft III. Like Stalag Luft III, this fictional camp is a veritable united nations. There are British officers, of course, a Greek officer, and a piano accordion-playing Frenchman. Vincent Ball, as Captain Pat Foster, in slouch hat and Aussie uniform doesn’t have to hide his accent. I spied Lieutenant Commander ‘Dopey’ Gibbon, RN (Andrew Faulds), ‘Doc’ Simmonds of the RAMC (Robert Bruce) and I recognised an ‘Airborne’ insignia but, because of the continual snow storm of my borrowed VHS copy, I can’t tell you who he was! Sadly, given my particular interest in air force history, the snow and erratic horizontal hold made it difficult to focus on background detail, so I couldn’t discern any air force officers.
The plot is simple. A series of escape attempts in an officers’ camp in Northern Italy, just before the Armistice in 1943, which should succeed, are discovered. The first escaper, who disguises himself as the one of the Italian commanders—so cleverly that not even Lieutenant Colonel Huxley (Bernard Lee) the Senior British Officer (SBO) is aware that it is one of his men in disguise—is caught by the very man he is impersonating just as he exits the compound. He is shot in cold blood in front of everyone, creating a near riot. The escape committee is convinced that they have an informer in their midst, until the likely suspect, Lieutenant Cyriakis Coutoules (Cyril Shaps), is found dead in an escape tunnel. Escape plans continue and the Italians continue to discover the attempts. It is not until the night before the grand scheme for the entire camp of 400 men to exit the tunnel in broad daylight is executed that they discover the traitor.
The camp spy pops up often enough in prisoner of war anecdote, but here, as with the similarly themed Stalag 17, the spy/traitor plays a major role in the narrative. The prisoners may dismiss his possible existence with the death of Coutoules, but his identity is revealed to the viewer quite early on. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been; it would have been much better to leave the great reveal until the very end, when Captain ‘Bunter’ Phillips (Richard Attenborough) discovers his identity. Even so, tension is created in not knowing whether the prisoners will discover him or whether their escape attempts will continue to be foiled, with deadly consequences. Although there is a spy in camp, and a murder, escape is at the heart of this film and it forms the basis for both narrative drama and narrative conflict. In one of the earliest scenes, the head of the escape committee, Lieutenant Colonel David Baird (Richard Todd) and Huxley argue over the importance of escape to prisoners of war. Baird is unequivocal in his belief that it was their duty to escape. Huxley is equally adamant that it is also their duty to stay alive. (The irony in Huxley not putting the highest priority on the duty of escape is that he had made a successful escape during the Great War.) This is a standard set piece to reinforce the central place of duty and survival in an active serviceman’s life, whether he is at the front or behind barbed wire.
Every aspect of prisoner-of-war life imaginable has been crammed into the 101 minutes playing time, including the ever-present guards in the watch towers, and right from the beginning, this film demonstrates that the active serviceman does not languish in captivity but creates as much disruption as possible to the enemy. Not only that, he actively manages his captivity and displays incredible ingenuity. It also highlights the imperative to survive, not only to continue the war whether behind barbed wire or not, but so the men can return home to their families, poignantly illustrated by Bunter Phillips’ wedding band and photos.
The dual goals of escape and survival are not easy to attain because there is indeed, ‘danger within’. Front and centre, is the betrayal of their escape plans by one of their own. Then, there are the cruel murders of the escapers. Lester (Peter Arne), the first to attempt a brazen escape by walking out disguised as the sinister Capitano Benucci (also played by Peter Arne) meets his doppelganger lying in wait, just outside the gates. He shrugs, acknowledging that the game is up, but rather than being rounded up and sent inside as he probably expects, he is shot in cold blood. There are tunnel collapses, real and staged. There is also psychological danger. Capitano Benucci knows full well how much the men depend on their mail to reinforce their connections with home when he announces that much of the mail was destroyed by fire—again. The men take advantage of many coping mechanisms to stay fit and healthy but for the psychologically fragile, mail deprivation is a serious blow.
As is typical of British films of this era there is a strong thread of humour throughout the film. (Even a cursory look at wartime prisoner of war logbooks reveals that humour was an important coping mechanism in captivity; you can’t be depressed if you are busy laughing at yourself and your situation.) After the opening battle scenes, the camera fixes on a man lying face down, apparently dead. And then he starts scratching his back side. Dopey Gibbon, who sways wildly as he pours ‘vino’ from a teapot, later reveals himself as a competent pre-escape briefer. The SBO sparks a laugh as he offers his gloved hands for finger printing because he likes to keep his hands clean. I couldn’t help smiling at the heart-warming enthusiasm of the ‘sewer rat’, Lieutenant Meynell (Ronnie Stevens) as he talks about his passion for drains, hardly realising that the all-pervading miasma of sewage makes him socially unacceptable—that is, until he discovers an all-important electrical cable. I laughed out loud at the controlled madness of Major Charles Marquand (Michael Wilding) and his side-kick Captain Alfred Piker (Peter Jones) who criticise the typical British weather while stepping out into ‘the rain’, and then announce that they will have to call for a taxi. Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s clowns, those pseudo mad-types serve a double purpose: while providing light relief they also gently hint at one of the greatest fears of all prisoners of war, barbed wire psychosis (wire happy).
I’ve read a few prisoner of war memoirs in my time and have interviewed a number of former prisoners, as well as members of their families. One of the repeated motifs is a great love of and enthusiasm for Red Cross chocolate. It was a treasured commodity and extremely valuable for trade and suborning the guards. Not surprisingly, chocolate puts in an appearance in Danger Within in another deft scene which combines dry British humour, real-life prisoner-of-war experience, and my favourite character in the film, Bunter Phillips. Here, Phillips tucks into his chocolate and refuses to share it around. The selfishness is understandable as, Phillips explains to his friends, he ‘paid through the nose’ for the treat: ‘five cigarettes and a tablet of soap’. The whip-like retort was, ‘you can see you’re out of soap!’
One thing in which I am particularly interested is altruism. I didn’t have far to look in this film to find it. The Italians find ‘evidence’ that Captain Roger Byfold (Donald Houston) murdered Coutoules, the prisoner believed to be the traitor. Given the cold-blooded murder of Lester, it is patently obvious to the prisoners that the innocent Byfold will be tried and executed. The camp clowns, Marquand and Piker, who have a well-advanced escape scheme of their own, offer to take Byfold with them. Their invitation might have been flippantly issued but it was generous, particularly given that a third man lessened their own chances of success. Chocolate-loving Phillips shows that his selfishness is but an aberration as he gives up his tunnel to the greater effort of the mass escape: he places the common good of the camp above his own desire for a quick and easy exit which would maximise his chances of returning to his wife and child. When the mass escape was planned, it was agreed that lots would be drawn to determine the order of exit (reminiscent of the method used to determine the order for the Stalag Luft III’s Great Escape). Altruistic Phillips, however, did not go into that draw. He volunteered to join the rear party, and is one of the last to leave the camp. (A few years later, Attenborough swaps services and gains a promotion as he graduates from family man and altruistic tunneller in Danger Within to Big X, mastermind of the whole shebang, in the 1963 American film, The Great Escape.) Captain Tony Long (William Franklyn) also puts up his hand for the rear party, but his action is hardly altruistic.
The film’s other set piece, again featuring Huxley, demonstrates that altruism does not occur naturally. Despite the wishes of Captain Rupert Callender (Dennis Price), principal of the camp theatre group, the Rupert Callender Players, Huxley decides that an afternoon production of Hamlet will be used as a blind while the prisoners escape via the theatre hut. Callender claims the players are not ready and perhaps resents the fact that his art will not be appreciated by the audience it deserves. Huxley launches into his lecture: ‘What do you think this place is—a holiday camp?’ The words are no accident. Prisoners of war of all stripes in Europe resented the fact that the Red Cross presented images to their family, and the world, that equated their existence to that of a holiday camp. Huxley continues: ‘Now you listen to me Callender. There’s nothing glamourous about being a prisoner of war. Most of the officers here, including me, and you too, are only alive because we surrendered or because someone senior put their hands up for us. Maybe it’s not our fault but it’s nothing to be proud of just the same. Far from it.’ The upshot was that Callender had no choice. He had to perform whether he was ready or not, whether he liked it or not. His players, then, would be some of the last to escape down the tunnel. Callender was not the only one who resented the decision. One of the bridge players, waiting in the theatre wings, muttered that everything was ‘sacrificed to the cause’. Was this a slight dig at the fact that virtually every man in camp was required to play some role in the escape organisation—as did their real life counterparts in Stalag Luft III? Or just a neat reinforcement that altruism in not inherent in all, and altruistic behaviour for the commonweal often has to be forced.
It is clear that this film knows something about life in captivity and, given the personal wartime experiences of Michael Gilbert and Colin Lesslie, this is not surprising. Examples of ‘real’ prisoner of war experience are crammed in everywhere, as significant plot devices, to provide ‘colour’, and as realistic diversions to escape activity. The escape organisation’s security crew are on the alert shortly after the opening sequence. The watcher settles into his deckchair by the Rugger field, ostensibly reading his never-ending book as he nods the ‘all clear’, the mirror signal is flashed, the clean towel is flashed to signal that the escape work can get underway. (The look-outs are on duty right through the film.) The ‘keep fit-types’ play rugger and golf and keep trim doing PT. There are the gardeners and the circuit walkers. In one scene the artist paints the ever-present guard tower, in another the art class provides a plausible excuse for a pre-escape briefing session. The bridge players play continuously, and later reveal a half regret that they would soon be leaving the ‘security’ of captivity for an uncertain future as escapees and evaders when they remark that this would be their last game behind barbed wire. There’s even the camp pet, a potential table duck who receives a reprieve, ostensibly until Christmas.
Perhaps the most striking example of the legacy of personal experience in the form of significant plot device comes from the discovery Phillips makes after a sand fall in the tunnel where he is completely buried for a time. He couldn’t move his hands at all, and, as such, realised that Coutoules’ damaged hands had occurred not because he had tried to dig his way out of the sand fall but because he had been tortured before death.
I am often bowled over by the examples of ‘kriegie ingenuity’ that abounded in Stalag Luft III. Every aspect of Stalag Luft III’s Great Escape, for instance, highlights the prisoners’ prodigious creative and technical talents. Likewise, in Danger Within, and perhaps the most ingenious is the ‘applause machine’ which audibly disguises the theatre left empty as the prisoners made their exit en masse from the camp. Ingenuity provides an important Deus ex Machina solution. How can they move Coutoules’ dead body right under the noses of the Italians? Round up the keep fit-types, of course. They can display their manly physiques and athletic prowess despite months or years of captivity and, with a ruse of playing piggy-back, can easily whisk the body to a more innocuous place where it can be ‘officially’ discovered.
There were two small aspects which I found particularly interesting. Indeed, I wondered if they had been drawn from the experiences of the men of Stalag Luft III and their mass escape, given details of if were well and truly in the public domain before either Michael Gilbert penned his 1952 novel or this film went into production, thanks to Paul Brickhill’s post war articles, Escape to Danger, which he penned with Conrad Norton in 1946 and The Great Escape which was published in 1950. Here in Italy, on the night before the escape, the men’s kit was to be inspected because, as the escape committee correctly assumes, there would be someone wanting to take along the kitchen sink, a poignant reminder perhaps that delays occurred in Stalag Luft III’s escape because luggage-laden men got stuck in the tunnel as they trolleyed down. (As it happened, the kitchen sink stayed behind in this effort, but the pet duck’s Christmas reprieve was extended indefinitely when its carer smuggled it out in his battle dress jacket.) The other thing that piqued my interest was that the committee monitored the letters going out before the escape. They wanted to prevent a deluge of ‘last letters’ tipping off the Italians. I haven’t pursued whether or not this occurred in Stalag Luft III, but I was surprised when I recently went through the letters of one Australian who was killed in the Great Escape and noted that the final letter his family received was written a few weeks before he exited camp, rather than in the days before, as I would have expected.
Letters in Danger Within have a dual function. They provide the means by which the traitor communicates his knowledge to Capitano Benucci, but they also signify the link to home and family. The prisoners might not talk about them in this film but family—and in particular wives—are revealed as very much a part of the captivity experience when we catch a glimpse of them in Phillips’ photos and the wedding band he always wears, even when digging. Women, always absent yet ever present in any prisoner-of-war camp, crop up frequently—and often humorously—in different guises, underscoring their significance to prisoners cut off from them physically while trapped in their homosocial environment. We catch a glimpse of tragic Ophelia, as the theatre-types rehearse, Gibbon jokes about old masters and old mistresses, in his pseudo art class, and, while packing his kit before departure, one man wonders if he can take along his photo of a shapely woman. His companion asks for her measurements and announces on hearing them that, at 41, 23, 38 inches, his friend ‘would never get her through the tunnel!’
Women, for prisoners of war, represent the past and the future. For the main part, it is too hard to dwell on either: you can’t relive the past and you can’t access the future until you are released. Even so, real life prisoners of war constantly dreamt of and planned for the future. They took courses, planned their future careers, gambled on when the war would end (usually before next Christmas) and some even designed the homes they would build and live in. In Danger Within, there is almost no reference to a future beyond barbed wire until the final preparations for the escape: ‘This time tomorrow we’ll all be outside’.
While Danger Within very much falls within the prisoner-of-war genre, the spy subplot has a satisfying resolution with the traitor receiving his just deserts. And I am not talking about a piece of Phillips’ chocolate. I won’t tell you how justice is served but, despite being accidental and administered by his ally Capitano Benucci, it reflects the real life punishment meted out to those who betray their countries in wartime. The finale, however, does not reflect the reality experienced by mass escapers. Here, the 400 do get out, and are last seen tearing through the Italian terrain to freedom. Real life mass escapes, however, failed dismally. But this is fiction, and the viewer is entitled to imagine a happy ending. (About 20,000 allied prisoners of war simply walked out of Italian camps after the armistice. Over 5000 traversed the Alps to neutral Switzerland, including 420 Australians.
(http://www.anzacpow.com/part_2__escape_from_italian_camps/chapter_1__the_italian_armistice Some joined guerrilla groups. The majority were rounded up and sent to German prisoner of war camps, including 29 or so Australian airmen who found themselves in Stalag Luft III.) So, suspending any sense of reality, I am more than content to believe that Bunter Phillips will return to his family and, notwithstanding the fact that chocolate is rationed, will have as much as he wants, without having to sacrifice hygiene!
How then, did Danger Within present captivity and the POW protagonists to the moving loving public, 14 years after war’s end? Well, despite Huxley’s declaration, this particular camp did come across as a holiday camp, what with sport, theatre, endless bridge playing and vino on tap, or in tea pot. The prisoners were fit and healthy and had obviously not suffered from any rationing of food and vitamins, as evidenced by the PT boys and the energetic rugger aficionados. They obviously had a decent laundry service because all uniforms appeared neatly ironed and stain free. Indeed, there was no sign of any mismatched, pieced together ensemble. The active serviceman was always on the go, planning and executing escapes, creating diversions, and getting up the nose of their captors. Although there was ‘danger within’, it did look like a jolly-hockey-sticks existence, greatly at odds with the starker images and physical debilitation of the Japanese prisoner-of-war experience portrayed two years earlier in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Viewing Danger Within, I can well see how many at the time (and later) believed that prisoners of war in Europe had had a fairly decent time of it in captivity, and that any similar camp would have been considered a soft billet where everyone had been busily trying to escape.
(All images, except for the modern book cover, lifted from ‘the internet’.)