Directed by Basil Dearden, this little-known 1946 film is an occasionally interesting but slightly dull melodrama about prisoners of war and the loved ones they’ve left behind. As Ealing Studios’ biographer Charles Barr states in the release’s only special feature, this is essentially a film about being English (and Welsh, and Scottish) and the struggle to maintain English values, even if it means holding a game of cricket in a German prison camp.
When the film begins, with the POWs marching down a dirt road, whistling brightly even with the prison camp gates on the horizon, we’re offered flashbacks into their last memories of home including an especially poignant scene when Lt. Lennox (Gordon Jackson) steps onto the train to join his regiment and chooses that, quite frankly, pretty inappropriate moment to ask his girlfriend to marry him. “Yes!” she answers, trotting beside the now-moving train with tears in her eyes, neither of them realising that Lennox will be wounded in action and that he is now a broken man whose injuries may well have rendered him blind, wallowing in self-pity. It’s definitely not a condition Jackson’s later alter-ego George Cowley would have approved of.
Jack Hawkins is here too, long before The Blue Lamp and its television spin-off Dixon of Dock Green would transform him into the loveable British Bobby every street urchin wanted a clip around the ear from. In Captive Heart, Hawkins is the solid centre of the POWs, whittling a boat out of wood, quick to settle an argument by using his fists if necessary.
But even though this is an ensemble piece, Michael Redgrave is unmistakably the lead. He plays Karel Hasek, a Czech Officer posing as a dead English Captain called Geoffrey Mitchell. It’s clear from the flashbacks that assuming the dead soldier’s identity was the only way Hasek could save his own life after being recaptured by the Germans, but what he doesn’t bargain for is that Mitchell’s estranged wife Celia (Rachel Kempson) will write letters to the prison camp, with the unspoken aim of reinvigorating her failed marriage. Because Hasek must continue the ruse of being Mitchell, he replies to her letters. His responses give Celia hope for a reconciliation, and when Hasek is finally repatriated (the sequence when one of the POWs breaks into the Kommandant’s office to add Mitchell’s name to the repatriation list is one of the best in the film) Celia still doesn’t realise that the man she is hurrying to meet at the train station believing to be her husband is actually a total stranger. Physically at least.
It’s an interesting premise, and the scene when Hasek reveals his deception to Celia did tug a little at even our jaded heartstrings, but then the film winds up too quickly. Just when it seems Celia will never forgive Hasek for what he’s done, the end of the war is declared, fireworks explode and suddenly she’s rushing to the telephone to take his call and no doubt declaring undying love. How do we know that? She’s got tears in her eyes. Fade to black.
We wanted to like The Captive Heart more than we did, especially because Michael Redgrave was one of the finest actors of his generation and his performance in Ealing’s Dead of Night still puts the chills up our spine. But if there’s one thing The Captive Heart taught us, it’s that when war breaks out some people will go to pretty ridiculous lengths to get the girl, and some girls will fall for anyone who can write a good letter.
Yours Sincerely, with tears in our eyes…
THE CAPTIVE HEART / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: BASIL DEARDEN / SCREENPLAY: ANGUS MACPHAIL, GUY MORGAN / STARRING: MICHAEL REDGRAVE, GORDON JACKSON, RACHEL KEMPSON, FREDERICK LEISTER, JACK HAWKINS, MERVYN JOHNS / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 16TH