Free at Last: The Captive Heart (1946)

THE CAPTIVE HEART, Michael Redgrave (center), 1946

To view The Captive Heart click here.

In the past, several of us here have been tipping our hats to the rich variety of films here at FilmStruck representing the underrated British filmmaker Basil Dearden, from his earliest days at Ealing Studios to his very last feature film (The Man Who Haunted Himself [1970]). Now it’s time to take a look at one of his most enduringly popular Ealing titles, a heart-tugging World War II film that’s held in tremendous esteem in its native country: The Captive Heart (1946).

One of the most high-profile films this summer was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, so it’s been interesting to go back and see films that tie in to those real-life events from different angles than what we saw in that IMAX spectacle. In this case we have a fictional story set after the Dunkirk evacuation, with (future Sir) Michael Redgrave cast in one of his strongest roles of the decade as Karel Hasek, a Czech captain who’s been sent to a concentration camp. A chance opportunity allows him to pose as one of the thousands of British officers sent to POW camps in the aftermath of Dunkirk, but to pull off the ruse, he has to keep writing to the wife of the dead British captain he’s now impersonating. (Think of it as a much harsher version of what Don Draper had to go through to assume his identity in Mad Men  [2007-2015].)

That story is a clever way to appeal to both male and female viewers just after the end of World War II. The story alternates between the grueling daily existence of imprisoned soldiers and the families waiting at home, telling audiences that the struggle was worth it and the preservation of social order had to come at the cost of many lives.

That’s not a unique message among the many war-themed British and American films that came out through the end of the 1940s, but what makes the difference here is the sensitivity and artistry that pulls it all off. It’s also a fairly challenging and ambitious film, with the opening fifteen minutes or so doling out a number of settings and characters assuming that you’ll pay attention and be willing to go along as things become clearer. You can see several familiar Ealing faces swirling around right from the outset, most notably Mervyn Johns and Basil Radford, but the mood is a bit different and the canvas broader than usual. (It does span from 1940 to 1945, after all.) The late Captain Mitchell being impersonated by Hasek is painted as something of a deadbeat and a lousy dad, an interesting choice for a British serviceman even if we never really see him, and it lends extra believability to the drama that unfolds as we grow to feel for his wife (and unaware widow), Celia (Rachel Kempson, the real Mrs. Redgrave). Speaking of believability, it’s worth keeping in mind that both this film’s co-writer, Guy Morgan, and many of the actors (including Derek Bond and Sam Kydd) had been real-life POWs, which makes you appreciate the achievement even more.


In fact, it’s the POW material where the film really crackles; there’s a particularly effective moment at the half-hour mark where the British inmates all manage to drown out German propaganda and military music over the camp loudspeakers by bellowing “Roll Out the Barrel” in unison. It’s an effective narrative device, one you can trace onward all the way to a similar moment in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). In fact, this is really the granddaddy of most modern World War II POW films and TV shows; I wouldn’t say this is as essential as Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), but you have to wonder how much this film forged ground in depicting something that would have been completely off limits the previous year. The idea of building the story through the writing of letters, with one party concealing his identity but speaking from the heart, still keeps this unique among the tons of later POW films; you’ll still get occasional lines like “Gentlemen, vee have discovered your tunnel!” but the setting is what makes the jewel sparkle all the more here.

In case you’re impressed by Redgrave’s fluent delivery of German (a pivotal plot point in the first act), pay attention to some nifty movie trickery used to sell the illusion. For example, 48-minute in you’ll see him get stopped and interrogated; he mouths a few words of German, but the rapid-fire response doesn’t come until a reaction shot of two of his fellow soldiers. With a bit of clever looping over Redgrave’s first words and then a well-timed cutaway, we don’t even notice that it’s a Redgrave sound-alike rather than the man himself saying the lines!

Finally, it’s worth noting how lucky we are to finally be able to watch all of these Ealing classics so beautifully restored over the past three years or so. This one underwent a massive overhaul in 2016, restoring the film to a luster unseen for decades. If you aren’t familiar with these films before now, just take my word for it that these often looked and sounded pretty rough on TV and home video, taken from dark and murky prints with very muddy sound that made these films seem far more remote and antiquated than they really are. Just take a look at some of the other classic British films around here as well, and you’ll see that now that these can be seen in pristine quality, that veil has been lifted permanently and we can finally enjoy the craftsmanship behind these films without any quality barriers at all.

Nathaniel Thompson

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