The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Bamboo Prison

Here we are again, the propaganda movie. I feel bad. I do, but I've got little else to go on here. Subtle, underplayed propaganda = anywhere from good to tolerable. Heavy-handed, aggressively in your face propaganda = not good to not tolerable. Unfortunately, 1954's The Bamboo Prison goes down the heavy-handed route.

Having marched for over 40 days, Corporal Brady (Brian Keith) and the remnants of a column of prisoners of war finally reach their destination; a brutal, under-supplied camp run by the North Korean army and several Russian/Communist advisers. Getting the scoop from his fellow prisoners, Brady discovers that one American P.O.W., Sgt. John Rand (Robert Francis), is a collaborator working with their captors for better treatment and billeting. Brady quickly finds out there's more than meets the eye when it comes to this believed collaborator. Rand is really an intelligence officer planted in the camp hoping to find proof/documentation of Communist atrocities committed against the POW's. Can he get the proof before a Russian counterpart figures him out?

Released just a year after the conclusion of the Korean War, 'Prison' was no doubt an incredibly timely story for audiences. Beyond it's issues with the propaganda angle -- more to come in that department -- the movie is undone by a general stupidity I had trouble getting past. At just 79 minutes, it doesn't really know where it wants to get other than delivering the "Communists are epically bad" message. Director Lewis Seiler was a talented director, even handling other propaganda-ish movies like Guadalcanal Diary, but the story here is too convoluted for its own good. Rambling, oddly and aggressively trying to be funny, it's a mess.

Propaganda in film can be good. I've said that before, and I'll most likely say it again. The story in 'Prison' has Francis' Rand searching for proof of Communist atrocities, anything from brainwashing to brutal physical beatings to lack of supplies and clothing. Brief sidenote; can't he just see these atrocities? What exactly is he looking for? Does pretending to be a collaborator actually help that much? Here's the thing. All those things were done by Communist/North Korean forces. There's evidence of it, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to watch. We are subjected to long monologues about the Communist ideal, and then shown how evil it is. Movies like The Manchurian Candidate showed that this subject could be handled in a subtle but still scary and effective fashion. That isn't the case here.

Star of just four movies before his death at age 25 in 1955 in an airplane crash, Francis isn't the best choice to play this character. As was the case with his other roles, he just is not a very expressive actor. His line deliveries come across as beyond static. Monotone, wooden, one-note, all adjectives would apply here. His Rand is also given a love interest, Tanya (Dianne Foster), a Russian ballerina married to a Communist adviser/brainwasher. Those scenes -- lacking any real chemistry -- can be painful to watch. In the sidekick role, Keith is wasted as the tough, no-nonsense Cpl. Brady. He's introduced, and you think he's going to be a main character but unfortunately not. His character disappears for long stretches, only to pop up when Rand needs some help.

Then there's the portrayal of the American and international prisoners of war. For a camp that's supposed to be one step above Hell, the prisoners don't seem to mind too much. They're always laughing it up, hamming it up, and all at their Communist captors' expense. Haha communism! You're so stupid! The prisoners include Jerome Courtland as Arkansas, a shrill Southerner with that stereotypical drawl, E.G. Marshall as Father Dolan, Earle Hyman as Doc, the black medic (another redeeming part), Jack Kelly as Slade, the fast-talking car salesman, King Donovan as Pop, the family man trying to get home (bet that ends well for you, buddy), Pepe Hern as Ramirez, the Mexican soldier, Leo Gordon as Pike, the hot-headed prisoner, and Dickie Jones as Jackie, the youngster. At different points, they sing together, do impressions of Bogie, and all sorts of prisoner of war hijinks. Yeah for being a prisoner of war!

There just isn't much going on here in that whole positive vein. The ending is ridiculously stupid, making us question what the hell Sgt. Rand was even thinking all along. Has he started to believe all the things he was pretending to believe? Eh, not worth analyzing. Just not a good movie.

The Bamboo Prison <--- TCM trailer/clips (1954): * 1/2 /****

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