Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Bamboo Prison (1954)

Director: Lewis Seiler                                     Writers: Edwin Blum & Jack DeWitt
Music Director: Mischa Bakaleinikoff             Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: Robert Francis, Dianne Foster, Brian Keith and E.G. Marshall

One of my favorite films of all time is The Caine Mutiny, but it took me a long time before I became curious about why I hadn’t seen Robert Francis in any other films. It was a disappointing blow to find out he had only appeared in four films before an airplane accident claimed his life in 1955. The Bamboo Prison was Francis’s penultimate film, but his last starring role. The film was one of the first to deal with the idea of “brainwashing” by the Chinese, and the kind of Communist psychological warfare that would be seen in Vietnam in the following decade. B-movie producer Brian Foy attempted to get the cooperation of the U.S. Army, but they declined due to the confusing nature of the screenplay. The story tries to give some possible justification for the numbers of military men who acquiesced to the Communist propaganda, suggesting that they may have been double agents. But the whole idea was too new for the Army to make that kind of endorsement, and would undermine their plan to investigating some of the returning prisoners who cooperated with the Communists. The mere suggestion that some American servicemen would succumb to Communist pressure in prisoner of war camps in order to escape abusive treatment was also in direct opposition to American ideas of patriotism and caused many communities to attempt bans on the film as Un-American.

The story begins with soldiers marching through the mud. They are prisoners of war in Korea. The voice over by Brian Keith tells of their mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese on the forced march. The only bed in the hut Keith is assigned to belongs to Robert Francis, who is apparently collaborating with the enemy. There’s a strong sense of the film attempting to emulate Stalag 17, which was released the year before to great acclaim. The soldiers run the gamut, from a Seattle car salesman to a kid from Arkansas, a black medic, and some Greek U.N. forces. But the attempt at broad humor is a little incongruous here, given the recent ending of the Korean War and how much more brutal the treatment of the prisoners was, and seems to work better in the World War II film. E.G. Marshall plays a Catholic priest who was accidentally caught up in the offensive, and steals what he can for the men. Keye Luke plays the Communist instructor for the camp, and then Dianne Foster shows up as the wife of the Russian liaison Murray Matheson. Once Keith gets a chance to talk to Francis alone, it comes out that they’re both working for Army intelligence, trying to gather information to use at the peace talks. Francis is eventually given privileges outside the camp by commandant Richard Loo, after being checked out by Matheson first. When Francis meets Foster for the first time, there’s the inkling of another intelligence connection between them.

The plot begins to twist when the audience learns that Marshall is really a Communist agent, and he’s been given a new assignment: to discover who the intelligence officer might be in the camp. This character caused some controversy for a number of reasons. The Catholic Church in the U.S. protested the characterization of a Communist agent as a priest, and writer Dale Francis made the discovery that the screenplay used actual speech material from real-life priest Father Kapaun who died in a Korean prisoner of war camp. The film is fairly impressive at times, but is undercut throughout by the comedy elements. And it’s not that they shouldn’t be there, but it’s played so broadly that it becomes too much of a contrast with the espionage. The crisp black and white photography doesn’t do the film any favors either, only serving to highlight the artificialness of the sets. The older, warmer film stock used by Paramount in Stalag 17 was much better. And, of course, almost all the dialogue was looped later which also gives the film a rather stilted feel. Of all the prisoners, Jack Kelley as a family man who wants to go home is probably the best. Brian Keith doesn’t get all that much screen time, and the rest of the men are fairly forgettable. One of the more powerful performances comes from Earle Hyman as a black medic. While the Communists attempt to turn him by pointing out the racism still endemic in America, he stays the course and refused to turn on his country.

The real star of the film is Robert Francis, though it’s sometimes difficult to assess just how good he is in the middle of what is admittedly a low-budget film. Still, he shows all of the same attributes that had gone into his memorable performance in The Caine Mutiny, and certainly had the potential to become a major Hollywood star. Prior to his death he was set to be loaned out to MGM to star opposite James Cagney in Tribute to a Bad Man. Francis’s second film had also been a western, They Rode West which teamed him again with actress May Wynn from his first film as well as Donna Reed. Dianne Foster does an adequate job here as the love interest, though no better, while E.G. Marshall gives a solid performance as the heavy. The direction by Lewis Seiler is certainly undistinguished, reminiscent of a TV movie, and indicative of the middle of the road work he did his entire career. The movie has no film score as such, but Brian Foy was able to draw upon the vast library of cues that Columbia had in its library from no less than eight composers, including Daniele Amfitheatrof. Musical director Mischa Bakaleinikoff composed the opening title sequence and was not doubt instrumental in selecting the cues that accompanied the rest of the film. While The Bamboo Prison is not a great film, as one of the rare opportunities to see Robert Francis it remains a valuable piece of Hollywood history.

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