“I bet you a magnum of champagne to ten cigarettes I do escape.”
Here’s one that’s well titled: Not only does “The One That Got Away” aptly describe the film’s contents, but it says something about me. Although the movie has been around for over fifty years (1957), I had never seen it or even heard of it until now. Thank goodness for the folks at VCI, who are making it available as a part of their J. Arthur Rank Collection of British films.
Based on the best-selling book by Kendal Burt and James Leasor about the real-life exploits of World War II German pilot Franz Von Werra, whom the British shot down over England and who kept escaping from various prison camps. The film predates “The Great Escape” but has much the same feel; it’s suspenseful and exciting, one of the better British movies I’ve seen about the Second World War.
The movie’s preface tells us, “This is the true story of Oberleutnant Franz Von Werra, the only German prisoner of war taken in Britain who escaped from captivity and got back to Germany.”
Roy Ward Baker (“A Night to Remember,” “Five Million Miles to Earth,” “Don’t Bother to Knock”) directed the film, and a young Hardy Kruger (“Sundays and Cybele,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Hatari,” “The Flight of the Phoenix,” “The Wild Geese”) stars as Von Werra.
According to Nazi propaganda, Von Werra was an ace pilot, although the Germans may have exaggerated many of his victories. On September 5, 1940, over Winchet Hill, Kent, the British shot down his plane and took him prisoner. The movie details Von Werra’s exploits during the next year or so as the British find it difficult to keep him in their care.
In the movie, the first POW camp to which the British send Von Werra is at Grizedale Hall in the Lake District, where we first hear him say he is determined to escape. He says it’s in order to tell his superiors in Germany about British interrogation techniques, but we can also see that he has loved ones at home. Besides, as he explains to his fellow POW’s, he doesn’t like barbed wire. His escape attempt from Grizedale is actually rather amusing, which hints at director Baker’s way around a movie script. Baker manages to capture not only the harrowing tensions of Von Werra’s escapades, but the humor of some of the situations as well.
After bringing him back, the British put Von Werra into a second POW camp, this one tougher: Swanwick, Derbyshire. Naturally, Von Werra gets away again, this time almost flying a plane back to Germany. “Cup o’ tea, dear?” The British are much too nice. Here, we also see an escape plan much more elaborate than the first one, a plan closer to what we got in “The Great Escape.”
After that venture, the British decide to send Von Werra to a POW camp in Canada, and the final escape is more brazen than it is calculated. It’s also the most exciting and adventuresome escape in the movie and provides its climax.
Anyway, the whole film hinges not only on Baker’s adroit direction but on Kruger’s performance. The guy is in every scene, and while his supporting cast is first-rate, Von Werra is never in one place long enough for the movie to establish any important secondary characters. In other words, it’s virtually a one-man show.
Early on, a British interrogator describes Von Werra as “a mixture of bombast and sheer nerve,” bright, cocky, and self-confident. That’s the way Kruger plays him, as a sort of supreme con man with a knack for self-promotion. The young Kruger was a combination of James Dean, a later Steve McQueen, and a present-day Brad Pitt, so he makes it work. “It’s the duty of an officer to try to escape,” Von Werra calmly explains to the British, which is exactly what he does.
It seems remarkable that Kruger, Baker, and the Rank Organization could pull off a WWII adventure drama with the hero a German officer, but they manage it quite well, remaining apolitical throughout, never actually taking sides but presenting the story in as straightforward a fashion as possible. There are few other such films, the best of the lot still being “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but that may be an unfair comparison. In any case, “The One That Got Away” is a top-notch suspense thriller, with fine acting from everyone involved but especially from Hardy Kruger, who holds it all together splendidly.
VCI have transferred the movie to DVD in its theatrical aspect ratio, 1.66:1, anamorphic, meaning you’ll see thin black bars at each side of the image. It’s worth it to see the picture exactly as its producers made it. VCI also digitally restored the film, so you’ll find few if any signs of age damage–no lines, fades, or rips, just an occasional light fleck. It’s a relatively clear, well preserved, well-cleaned product, with reasonably good definition, decent black-and-white contrasts, and a light, natural print grain.
The audio choices are Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural and an enhanced Dolby Digital 5.1. Comparing them, I found the original mono very slightly better focused but the 5.1 a tad more spacious. The 5.1 widens the soundstage a touch without sounding too hollow or soft. There’s not much surround, of course; OK, there’s virtually no surround, but otherwise the 5.1 is smooth and pleasant, easy on the ear. If you listen closely enough, or turn the volume up high enough, you’ll hear a very small amount of background noise. Most listeners, I’m sure, will not notice it.
The pickings are meager in the bonuses department, with only an original widescreen theatrical trailer, twelve scene selections, and English subtitles as extras. English is the single spoken language available, but there is a handsome menu screen involved.
“The One That Got Away” is a fairly honest, objective retelling of Von Werra’s story, taken, one presumes, directly from the book of the same name. It takes an intelligent look at its material and provides an engrossing look at a true story.
“You have the power to make it hard for me to live with my comrades, but if I were to give you military information, I would not be able to live with myself.”