(For those desiring to know more, the full schedule of TCM’s “Never Surrender: WWII in the Movies” can be found here: https://i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/2019/WWII/TCM-WWII-2019-Schedule.pdf.)
Tonight’s’ focus is Prisoner of War (POW) movies; and the line-up includes two classics: The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The first of these, The Great Escape, is a star-studded 1963 rendition of Paul Brickhill’s famous 1950 book of the same name.
Based on an actual event, the movie recounts an audacious 1943 Allied POW plan to dig three tunnels and undertake a simultaneous mass break out of 250 men from German POW camp Stalag Luft III, so as to draw thousands of German armed forces away from the front lines in order to search for the fugitive Allied POWs.
In the end, however, only 76 Allied prisoners actually get away; and most all are eventually rounded up. In a particularly tragic scene, 50 are executed by machine gunfire on the explicit orders of the Nazi high command.
The second movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was made six years earlier in 1957. This one was based on a 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle (who was later to write his more famous novel, Planet of the Apes). The film uses the historical setting of the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-1943, and recounts how a small group of commandos are sent in to destroy a railroad bridge over the Kwai River that has been built by forced labor of Allied prisoners.
I confess that I already own digital copies of both of these movies; and that I know them virtually line by line! But that does not prevent me from tuning in one more time whenever I happen to come across them on television.
Of course, the plot of both movies is dependent upon the successful escape of one or more prisoners from internment. In the former, so as to recount what happened to the wider world; and in the latter, to be recruited to become part of the commando squad that returns to attack the bridge.
In reality, in regard to the total number of United States military personnel imprisoned during the war (93,941 in Europe and 27,465 in the Pacific), only a very, very small number actually managed to succeed in escaping imprisonment and making their way back to friendly lines. Most endured years of privation and barbarity at the hands of their captors.
In fact, the vast majority who survived imprisonment were only freed by liberation. In some case, this was by designated raids undertaken for that very purpose, as in the January 1945 raid on Cabanatuan in the Philippines that freed nearly 500 U.S. prisoners.
More often than not, though, throughout the spring and summer of 1945, advancing Allied troops simply came upon and liberated Allied POWs who were being held by the retreating German and Japanese armies.
Ironically, on another channel, two episodes of Hogan’ Heroes are being broadcast concurrent with these movies. A product of the 1960s, when America had emerged victorious from World War Two and become a world superpower, this television comedy presents the Axis powers as bungling idiots outwitted by Allied POWs at every turn. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth.
As more realistic depictions of the Second World War emerged from Hollywood over the years, we have been reminded of just how fiercely contested this struggle was. TCM is right to stress that they are honoring “the courage and sacrifice that was required to win World War Two”.
Of course, the preacher in me cannot help but see the parallel to our human condition. In our great struggle against evil, we have been taken captive by the evil one – Satan. And no attempt on our part to escape his clutches has ever proven successful. But praise God, we were not forgotten. In the fullness of time, we were liberated by an infinitely more powerful combatant – the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
As the Bible says (in the New Testament Book of Galatians, chapter 4, verses 4-5, CEV), “When the time was right, God sent his Son … so he could set us free!”
To Him, and Him alone, therefore, do we owe our ultimate freedom! Thus, while I certainly join TCM in celebrating “the courage and sacrifice that was required to win World War Two” and give us earthly freedom, I rejoice even more in the same qualities that enabled the Son of God to fight His way to victory at Calvary and guarantee my eternal freedom in the process. For in the words of Jesus Christ Himself, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!”
A Google search will provide numerous sites dealing with WW2 POWs and their exploits.
See, for instance:
NOTE: The actors who played the four major German roles in “Hogan’s Heroes” - Werner Klemperer (Luftwaffe Colonel Klink), John Banner (Luftwaffe Sergeant Schultz), Leon Askin (Luftwaffe General Burkhalter), and Howard Caine (Gestapo Major Hochstetter) - were all Jewish. Of these, Klemperer, Banner, and Askin, along with Robert Clary (who portrayed Allied prisoner, Corporal LeBeau), were all individuals who actually spent time in internment camps in Nazi Germany before escaping to America!
Mark Felton has written a wonderful book recounting a similar mass escape undertaken a year before in 1942 by Allied POWs from another camp known as Oflag VI-B. Cf.: Mark Felton, Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014).
For an equally riveting first hand account of an escaping Allied POW in the Pacific, check out the following book: Damon L. Gause, The War Journal of Major Damon "Rocky" Gause: The Firsthand Account of the One of the Greatest Escapes of World War II (New York: Hyperion Press, 1999). "Rocky" Gause escaped from the Philippines to Australia in 1942. His journal was found years later by his then grown son in a chest in the attic and eventually published.