The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Purple Plains

As movies go, if you're a pilot and you fly enough, eventually you're going to crash in the wilderness somewhere and A. march back to safety B. fight a giant bear or C. survive Lord of the Flies style when your fellow survivors turn on you.  Most of these downed pilot movies I've seen qualify in the A department, a majority of them set in the military in one way or another, like Behind Enemy Lines with Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman.  But before that action extravaganza, that plot device has been used many times, like 1954's The Purple Plain.

In 1945 Burma in the closing months of WWII, Canadian fighter pilot Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck) is battling with some inner demons on a daily basis.  Early in the war his newlywed bride was killed in a bombing raid in London and ever since he's been looking and trying to die in combat with no luck, instead earning medals and citations. Forrester meets a young Burmese woman, Anna (Win Min Than in her only movie) working with the missionaries and falls in love with her, giving him a reason to live. But just when things are looking up him, a routine flight goes awry, and Bill is forced to crash land in the Burmese jungle with a passenger and a navigator.  They land safely, but they're 30 miles into Japanese territory with little supplies.  Do they attempt to march out or wait and hope help is coming?

'Plain' is divided fairly evenly between the two different stories, one is Forrester and his background and his personal struggles as he meets and gets to know Anna, and two his efforts to survive with an obnoxious whiny doctor (Maurice Denham) and an inexperienced navigator (Lyndon Brook) in the jungle. Director Robert Parrish doesn't go overboard with a sappy love story -- thankfully -- and also doesn't overhype the second half survival story. He finds a good mix in between because that first half is necessary if the second half is supposed to do anything to the viewer emotionally.  We've seen where Forrester is coming from, and now we get a chance to see what he's like when his mind is all there.

I've always been a Gregory Peck fan, but the more I see of him the bigger a fan I become.  I've yet to see a performance of his that isn't a solid one.  Some obviously work better than others, but he's almost always trying something new.  His Bill Forrester is a tortured individual, a man who wants nothing more than to die so he can be reunited with his dead wife.  While still fighting the war, he is clearly going through some post-traumatic stress disorder as he deals with his past.  The performance is a strong one for Peck, especially the second half as the character arc comes full circle.  Forced to improvise and become a leader or lay back and die, Peck's Forrester steps up to the plate and does what he has to to survive.

The survival aspect of the story is clearly the one that appealed to me more.  The on-location shooting was done in Sri Lanka where The Bridge on the River Kwai would be filmed three years later.  It's a funny thing, but the jungles look like real jungles.  Who would have thought that?  By the time Forrester and Co. crash, there's a real feeling of claustrophobia as if the jungle is closing in on you.  In a wise choice, Parrish never has the trio run into a Japanese patrol, much less see any trace of a single Japanese soldier.  The threat is enough, their ever lurking presence.  Besides, the real threat is among the group as Forrester and Blore try to decide what to do, make their own luck or wait for a rescue?

This isn't going to be a particularly long review.  I liked the movie, and that's about it.  It's not a great movie, but it is a different story and I'm always up for that.  Also in the cast look for a pre-James Bond Bernard Lee as Dr. Harris, a physician interested in helping Forrester out, and Brenda De Banzie as Mrs. McNabb, a missionary working in Burma who is like a mother to young Anna. The movie is available to watch via Youtube starting with Part 1.

The Purple Plain <---TCM clips (1954): ***/****    

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