THE CAPTIVE HEART (Basil Dearden, 1946)

Most of The Captive Heart unfolds in a German P.O.W. camp populated by British soldiers. Basil Dearden’s excellent film combines objective and subjective elements in a pseudo-mystical way that suggests Michael Powell’s influence. It is also wonderfully well acted. I have come to this film late, and the form in which I have finally seen it is, alas, all that’s available to me: the truncated version devised for U.S. consumption.* It hardly matters. This splendid piece of work refreshes one’s whole opinion of Dearden, the Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)-antics of whose Khartoum (1966) be damned.

The film opens on an objective, documentary note; viewers are informed that The Captive Heart was partly filmed in “the British zone of Germany.” To be precise, the filmmakers used the merchant navy internment camp, Marlag (Marinelager) und Milag Nord, in Westertimke, in northern Germany. Another objective note is struck by the last entry in the opening cast credits: “Officers and Men of the 51st Highland Division and the 50th A.A. Brigade.” Both the setting (which doubles here as a P.O.W. camp in France), in addition to the restrained acting of the prisoners (and of the German officials and guards, for that matter) and Douglas Slocombe’s restrained black-and-white cinematography, lend realism to what we see in the fictional camp. Details of the prisoners’ daily lives—one of the authors of the script, journalist Guy Morgan, had himself been a prisoner at the actual camp—also contribute to the film’s objective realism.**

However, the ambitions of this film go way beyond the fashioning of a realistic surface. Dearden and his scenarists, Angus MacPhail and Morgan (working from Patrick Kirwan’s original story), are angling for an epic—an expression of national aspirations. The foundation of their ambition is the British unity that culminated in the Allied victory. The film opens with captured Britons marching to their imprisonment. (The march is shown from multiple distances and angles, the sum of which provides an enormous sense of the men’s dispiritedness and ordeal.) Something lightens the load of this brilliant passage; something else freights it. The former is, of course, the viewer’s knowledge of the outcome of the war and of the 1929 Geneva Convention rules mandating the humane treatment of prisoners-of-war. (The 1949 Geneva Convention was, in fact, the fourth in a series of such conventions.) The film, not naive on this score, depicts a brutal violation of the 1929 rules, which forbids reprisals against prisoners for defeats suffered on the battlefield; but the fact remains that the British men we see marching to their confinement are not headed for a Nazi death camp. All, or nearly all, will survive. Our certainty of this we can imaginatively project onto them as a group, therefore, and (to repeat the phrase) this lightens their load—at least for us. For the original audience for which the film was intended, one may go so far as to say that this shared knowledge, in the dark of the theater, was meant to reinvigorate the sense of unity and community that characterized Britain’s national war effort on the homefront. One thing more: the location of the action—France, June 1940—would likely have reminded British audiences that their nation, in addition to sharing sacrifice during the war, escaped German occupation such as parts of France suffered. From the get-go, then, Dearden’s film invites a shared mindful participation by members of the audience. This isn’t the sort of film that washes over one.

But we do more at the outset than simply watch men march. Dearden & company interrupt this objectivity with shafts of subjectivity. The camera picks out from the men faces that belong to those who will be important characters in the film. Each of these persons experiences a flashback of his life prior to his going to war. In the main, these are memories (for better or worse) of romantic relations. These visualizations of men’s memories accomplish a number of things. One is that they individualize the men; we are reminded that “the group” in this case consists of united individuals, not souls who have been politically impressed into a group identity at the expense of their individual lives, memories, thoughts and feelings. Too, there is the irony that the captured men are also being held captive by their memories, that is to say, their civilian lives and destinies. Soldiers do not begin with a blank slate; they are human beings with their own pasts. Moreover, because of the memories that haunt these men’s minds, the exclusion of women from the ranks of the prisoners doesn’t undermine Dearden & company’s attempt to forge from the prison a metaphor for British society and a national destiny. Women enter the ranks of prisoners as well, brought in in the minds of the male prisoners. Finally, the spiritual or imaginative connection between those at war, here represented by the prisoners, and those back home paves the way for the exciting element of what otherwise would be an impossible romance that develops between one of the prisoners, Captain Karel Hasek, and Celia Mitchell, a stranger in London with whom he corresponds under false pretenses.

Hasek, a Czech, is the one character who slips into the P.O.W. camp. He is hiding there, having escaped from a death camp. Exposure, in other words, would mean extermination in his case. Hasek has assumed the identity of a dead soldier, Celia’s estranged husband, Geoffrey Mitchell. When she corresponds with him, believing him to be her spouse, he responds in kind in order to maintain his cover. The emotional fullness of his response, predicated on both his loneliness and his ignorance of the extent of the Mitchells’ difficult marital history, triggers a genuine relationship between the two persons involved. Karel falls in love with Celia, and Celia finds herself more in love with “Geoff” than ever. One of the most exquisite aspects of the treatment of this material is the implication that Celia unconsciously knows that something is amiss, that “Geoff” couldn’t possibly be Geoff, and that she is as much involved in a pretense as Karel, however unconscious of the fact she may be. Rachel Kempson’s performance as Celia is phenomenal—luminous, sensitive, complex. In her hands, her character is aptly named.***

Other P.O.W.s pull off a concerted effort to get Hasek repatriated under his false identity, thus saving his life. This is meant to recall what launched Britain into war: six months after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. It is a reminder of Britain’s concern for the rest of Europe—one that, however disingenuously, evades British (and others’) earlier appeasement of Hitler, no matter the evidence of his appetite for continental Europe. The release of Hasek eventually leads to a meeting between him and Mitchell’s unwitting widow. Learning for the first time of her husband’s death, she recalls Karel’s pretense and, where she was concerned, the fullness of that pretense. However, their romantic partnership is shown to coincide with Brits celebrating war’s end. It’s a reach, making of this strange new couple an encapsulation of Allied victory and British hopes for the future; to the considerable extent that it works, though, the outcome is indebted to the beginning of the film, where war and homefront are prepatorily, imaginatively linked. The celebratory finale, then, collects and expands upon the subjective elements that have interrupted and deepened those objective elements that primarily account for the film’s realistic tenor. What does the future hold? The British have pulled together both at home and in the P.O.W. camp that has been the focus of our attention. Perhaps they will be able to do so again.

Here is where the films avoids—just barely—a false, sentimental note. Would Britain be able to relax its class rigidity as a peacetime extension of its wartime unity? Dearden is careful to end the film on a note of hope, not smug, rah-rah complacency. One of the other repatriated men—a boy, really: the actor playing him, Gordon Jackson, was twenty-two at the time—constitutes a loose end that is permitted to remain somewhat loose. Lieutenant David Lennox has been blinded in war. This blindness may be temporary or permanent. Reasonably presuming that the latter is the case (he has been informed that his condition is inoperable), David has ended his engagement to Elspeth. When David returns, she is nevertheless waiting for him. This not-quite-settled situation bears the extent of the film’s residual question-mark. Dearden is hopeful, perhaps even (naively) optomistic; but at least something is held back from certainty, and this will be enough for some viewers, if not enough for some others. (For a third group, themselves after nothing more than a feel-good finish, the matter will be irrelevant.)

The film closes with a strong series of shots of the abandoned P.O.W. camp: a reiteration of the film’s objectivity, except that we imaginatively project into these deserted scenes our memories of the characters who had earlier inhabited them. That Dearden is able to elicit this imaginative response from us without recourse to visual hanky-panky—either solid or diaphanous images of the men—strikes me as remarkable.

Michael Redgrave is wonderful as Karel Hasek. (Does the complete version better connect Hasek to his Czechoslovakian past?) One sets aside all questions as to how the Czech’s British impersonation could go undetected by the Germans in order to take in the draughts of humanity that Redgrave brings to the role.

* Actually, the version I viewed is only eight minutes shorter than the version released in Britain in 1946, while the version originally released in the United States (I’m not sure when) was eighteen minutes shorter.

** It is worth noting that producer Michael Balcon’s wife, working for the Red Cross during the war, had been involved in assisting repatriated P.O.W.s.

*** I have no desire to revisit Tony Richardson’s loud, demented Tom Jones (1963), in which Kempson appears as Squire Allworthy’s sister, Bridget. I principally saw The Captive Heart at last in order to have a better sense of Kempson, the mother of one of my favorite actresses, Vanessa Redgrave. (And of one of my least favorite actresses, Lynn Redgrave, who is nothing more than a crude mimic.) For her performance as Celia, I have now named Kempson best supporting actress of 1946. At the time of the film, she and its star, Michael Redgrave, had been married a dozen years.


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