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, April 29, 2012

The McKenzie Break

While there have been obvious exceptions, I usually think of WWII prisoner of war movies from the Allied P.O.W.'s perspective. Movies like The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai among others. The lack of Axis POW movies can be explained with the fact that many prisoners spent the war in the U.S., but I suppose there's a more obvious one. The appeal of prisoner of war movies is the escape. You're rooting for the prisoners to get out. This may just be a personal thing, but unless I'm given some sort of motivation, I ain't rooting for German/Japanese prisoners to escape, like 1970's The McKenzie Break.

It is late in World War II, but the fighting rages on, even in isolated northern Scotland at a German P.O.W. camp in McKenzie commanded by the British, including Major Perry (Ian Hendry). Perry's prisoners are almost exclusively officers -- no enlisted men here -- and thanks to their ranking officer, a U-boat commander, Captain Willi Schlueter (Helmut Griem), those prisoners have organized. While they're still prisoners, they essentially run the camp, Perry unable to enforce even the most basic rules and laws. An Irishman and former journalist working for British Intelligence, Captain Jack Connor (Brian Keith), has been assigned to the McKenzie camp to aid the situation. What exactly are these German prisoners up to? Can Connor figure out their plan before it is unleashed?

As I'm planning what to write here, I'll say this out front. If it comes across poorly or naive, I apologize. I know atrocities were committed on both sides during WWII, but I'm more familiar with those of the German/Japanese forces against Allied prisoners than the other way around. The victors write the history books and all that. So anyways, here goes. Almost all countries signed the Geneva Convention, a document protecting prisoners of war as much as possible, basically treating them like humans. As presented in 'McKenzie' and making it difficult to watch, only so much can be done. German forces always seemed ready to brutally respond to any prisoner issues, but Hendry's Major Perry seems helpless here even when German prisoners physically assault his guards. He makes the point that any action against these prisoners will be taken against Allied prisoners in Germany which is true. Maybe it's just a deeper seeded issue, a more human way of doing your job. At what cost and how far does a country and its people go? Maybe the Germans were just more comfortable in their brutality? Sorry for a somewhat off tangent. Just had to say it.

I've mentioned before, and I'll most likely mention it again, but I'm a sucker for prisoner of war movies. They're unique to war movies because they can focus on the natural tension of the conflict without getting anywhere near the battlefield. Director Lamont Johnson is at the helm of a dreary-looking film (I suppose on-location Ireland doesn't get a lot of sun) that certainly adds some dimension to the story. It is refreshing to see the Allies as the guards and the Germans as the prisoners in this tweak of a familiar story-line. The opening set-piece especially sets the tone, Perry's complete failure at "commanding" his McKenzie camp. Watch it HERE. I kept waiting for the order to fire on the prisoners -- physical assault on guards seems like reason enough -- but the opener does a great job of setting things up. This is not your typical camp where the prisoners meekly assemble and wait out the end of the war, no matter how the war effort is going for the Germans.

Amidst all the bigger picture elements in 'McKenzie' is a simple plot device that is as close to a sure-thing as you can get; a cat and mouse game between two intelligent minds, in this case Keith's Capt. Connor and Griem's Schleuter. Connor knows his German counterpart is up to something, Griem knows Connor is hot on his trail. Keith does a great job in the part, a cynical, honest quasi-soldier who isn't interested in chain of command, honor, bravery, and the so-called glory of war. He's doing his job as if he was a civilian, military protocol be damned. Griem as U-boat commander Schleuter is the villain here, not just an enemy. A devout Nazi and former member of the Hitler Youth, he is an elitist, racist, brutal officer, obsessed with helping the German and Nazi war effort. No cost is too high for this young officer. At one point, he even organizes the murder of one of his own men, a homosexual. The banter between the rival officers is pitch-perfect, neither man letting on how much he knows, both men knowing they're facing a worthy competitor.

Not many other parts really stand out, but Hendry especially does his best. It's not that his Major Perry is a bad officer, but he's at the end of his rope and limited by orders from above. Too bad his character is basically pushed to the side once Connor shows up. Patrick O'Connell does a fine job as Sgt. Major Cox, the head non-commissioned officer who works with Connor and is drawn to his more straightforward approach to handling the issue of how to handle the German prisoners. Even Jack Watson has a small but interesting part as General Kerr, Connor's commander and old friend who wants the problem to be solved quickly, efficiently and quietly. Horst Janson plays Lt. Neuchl, the gay German officer who feels the wrath of his fellow soldiers.

Having watched countless prisoner of war movies, I was a little upset with myself about the conclusion I'd come to. It sounds obvious, I'm not going to root for the Germans to escape, just like I didn't want Hardy Kruger to escape in The One That Got Away. I want Keith's Capt. Connor to get his hands on these guys before they can reach safety. The final 45 minutes pick up the pace as the story reveals more of itself, not just prisoners trying to escape but why they're doing so with orders coming from German High Command. On the other side, Connor sees potential for an impressive coup. Which one will work? The ending is especially clever in its development in this underrated P.O.W. movie.

The McKenzie Break <---trailer/clips (1970): ***/****

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