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06 August 2017

The Captive Heart: Emotional Rescue

This is my contribution to the Fourth Annual Great British Invaders Blogathon -- Read 'Em All!

Michael Redgrave falls in love with a dead man's wife through letters
It's almost better to come across this movie by accident; at first it seems to be a typical, well-made British World War 2 morale-builder, with quite honest attempts to take note of people's real concerns. But this film covers a lot of ground; there's a bit of adventure, a classic P.O.W. drama, and finally a quite unexpected and moving romance. The film is beautifully photographed, and perfectly paced, so that emotional points are clearly made in brief scenes, despite a complex structure.
The film begins with a spoken statement of appreciation for the contributions and sufferings of prisoners of war, and we see a group of dispirited men shuffling wearily towards what turns out to be a railroad station. As they go, we see a series of flashbacks to the lives of these men before their capture -- the cheerful Welsh builder (Mervyn Johns, getting to use his own accent for a change), the aspiring composer, the young Scot (Gordon Jackson, naturally) proposing to his girl as his troop train pulls away from the platform. We see these same men, dirty, ragged, and exhausted, about to be put aboard a train heading for who knows where, presumably a prison camp.

Redgrave, Jack Warner, Mervyn Johns, and Jimmy Hanley
At the station orders are given to the British officer in charge (Basil Radford, here quite the action hero), but none of the Germans speaks English and none of the Brits speak German -- until one prisoner, who gives his name as Geoffrey Mitchell (Michael Redgrave), comes forward and offers his assistance, since he does in fact speak perfect German. The German officers want to separate the British officers from the men, but the British refuse. That settled, the prisoners are bundled onto freight cars, and a British medical officer passes among them, checking on their various injuries and wounds, his inquiries meeting with responses like, "Musn't grumble, sir."
As the train rumbles on, we see via flashback that Mitchell isn't Mitchell at all, but an escaped prisoner caught in the battle in which Mitchell was killed, and who, to prevent instant execution, assumes Mitchell's identity. Then the scene shifts to England, where we see Mitchell's wife, played by the extremely lovely Rachel Kempson (the future Lady Redgrave and the mother of Corin, Vanessa, and Lynn Redgrave), trying to find information about her husband, though candid family conversation shows that their marriage was on the rocks. 

Basil Radford, Michael Redgrave, and Guy Middleton
Mitchell tries to blend in with the others, but they detect that he is not who he says he is. At first this arouses some suspicion, but eventually the British prisoners come to trust him, and conceal his real identity from the Germans. Meanwhile, the Nazis in charge of the camp proceed with the usual creepy psycho-drama, cutting off all communication with the outside even though the prisoners are supposed to be allowed to send and receive letters; they call the men to an assembly and blast triumphant German marching songs through the loudspeaker. This last backfires somewhat, as the Brits answer with a rousing rendition of "Roll Out the Barrel." 
Music and song become very important expressions of nostalgia, patriotism, determination, and strong feelings of every kind in this film. When the men were first marched from the railroad to the camp, they defiantly whistled "There'll Always Be An England" as they went.  Dai, the Welshman, organizes a choir for Christmas, and everybody sings familiar carols. They sing to drown out German "propaganda" music. They may have stiff upper lips, but they can also belt out "The Long and the Short and the Tall," and it resonates with unspoken solidarity and mutual support.
Most of the middle of the film is taken up with displaying British wit, endurance, and pluck. The men endure boredom, personal frictions, homesickness, and the constant barrage of Nazi self-aggrandizement. The flow of letters back and forth resumes, and the false Mitchell gets a letter from the real Mitchell's wife, Celia. To avoid suspicion, he answers, asking her to write to him just as if he were a stranger. She thinks this is her husband,  reformed by his wartime experiences, and she does just what he asks, describing the life of the village where they live, the nearby farms, the doings of their children. He replies, and they write back and forth for what turns out to be years. 
But the time eventually comes when some of the men are repatriated. Despite the prisoners' efforts, the commandant has become suspicious of Mitchell, and his life is increasingly at risk the longer he stays in the camp. The British put their heads together to think of a plan. It seems that the master list of prisoners to be sent back to England is in the safe in the commandant's office. 
"Well, why don't we steal it, sir?"
"How could we get it open? None of us is a professional safe-cracker."
"Well, actually, sir," one of the men speaks up, "I am."
So that's what they do. They steal the list, alter it, and put it back. Mitchell is included in the group of repatriated soldiers. 
When they arrive in London, he sees Celia looking for her husband in the crowd, but doesn't speak to her. But after reporting to the authorities, and being assigned to the Free Czech forces headquartered in Britain, he does visit Celia. In a restrained but very emotional scene, he tells her that his name is Karel Hasek, and that he wrote the letters she received from the prison camp, and that her husband is dead. She is overwhelmed by this information, and he simply tells her that he loves her, and leaves.

Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson
The final scenes begin a few months later with a montage of the celebrations of V-E Day, as people pour into the streets, singing and dancing with joy. Fireworks are set off all over the country, in every village and town. Celia is watching the display with her children when she gets a phone call from Captain Hasek. Her face floods with happiness -- now she knows that he is the man she fell in love with through his letters. 
Director Basil Dearden does a wonderful job with this film, and I actually think it's one of his best, moving quickly but with perfect clarity through a complicated story and many characters. But the real center of the film is Michael Redgrave, in a deeply felt, intense, mesmerizing performance. Tall, athletic looking, and handsome, Redgrave could have been a movie star if he had wanted to; he was more interested in the demanding world of classical stage drama, but all of his film performances are well worth seeing. Here he conveys Karel's loneliness, fear, and gratitude with power and subtlety -- and all of these things are a tribute to Britain, and the British character, as the soldiers accept him, a foreigner, protect him, and finally risk their own safety to save his life and send him home.

The Captive Heart is available on Filmstruck as part of the Basil Dearden collection. Also available are other Redgrave performances: The Importance of Being Earnest, The Lady Vanishes, Time Without Pity, and The Browning Version.

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