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An American army officer, troubled by reports of brutality, volunteers to investigate conditions inside North Korean POW camps. He parachutes behind enemy lines and infiltrates a group of G.I.s being marched to one of these camps. There, he witnesses scenes of G.I.s being brainwashed, beaten, subjected to mock executions, deprived of food and water, and tortured in a variety of ways under the supervision of a Russian colonel. While reaction to this treatment varies, the officer is heartened to learn that American soldiers are still a courageous and enduring force. Written by
Capt. Robert H. Wise, who lost 90 pounds in a North Korean POW camp, served as the film's technical advisor and attested that all the torture scenes in the movie were based on actual incidents. See more »
It's hard to imagine much of a paying audience for this movie which was rushed into production early in 1954 to capitalize on news stories about ill-treatment of American POWs inside North Korea. Many of these stories dealt with the disturbingly high number of POWs who seem to have collaborated with the enemy in various ways and there was ominous talk that something called "brainwashing" might be responsible for this sorry state of affairs. MGM's problem was to work this material into a commercial property which would patriotically support "our boys" while, at the same time, acknowledge those troubling charges of collaboration. The movie tries to solve this dilemma by showing American POWs indeed confessing to "war crimes" but stressing the fact that this occurred only after they'd been subjected to prolonged, unrelenting torture of both a physical and psychological nature. To adequately make its case, the movie presents scenes of torture intended to be persuasive and yet acceptable to a general audience. These scenes probably remained in the viewers' memory long after the movie's more routine and predictable moments had been forgotten. Three scenes in particular stand out. (1) John Lupton, later of TV's "Broken Arrow" series, is shown kneeling with his arms pulled back and over a horizontal pole passing behind him. Heavy rocks are tied to his hands, painfully stressing his wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Each time the pole is lifted and then dropped, Lupton groans in torment. (2) Steve Forrest and a dozen or so other POWs are forced to lie face-up in open graves for several days and nights. They're exposed to the elements, given no food or water, and become increasingly filthy. Eventually they're taken from their graves and lined up before a firing squad for what proves to be a mock execution. (3) Steve Forrest, Robert Horton, later of TV's "Wagon Train," and six other POWs are crucified with ropes to wooden frameworks at the top of a hill and left to suffer long, slow agonies. All these tortures were attested to as being authentic but their impact is somewhat diminished by casting as their victims only young, handsome actors with virile physiques which are shown off by having the actors wearing nothing but dogtags, undershorts, and a gleaming coating of studio sweat. The result is a parade of homoerotic "beefcake in bondage" usually found only in sadomasochistic magazines! In other respects, the movie benefits from MGM's film-making professionalism and there are just enough crowd pleasing moments of dialog and characterization to take the edge off some of the movie's grimness.
(May 2010) Revisiting this movie after more than 10 years have passed, one can't help but be struck by its competency as a piece of film-making. We used to take this nuts-and-bolts stuff for granted but compare the big-studio professionalism of "Prisoner of War" with the sloppy work done, especially in the script department, with "The Hanoi Hilton" -- a 1987 film which tells a similar story about the Vietnam War. Both films are failures but at least "Prisoner of War" isn't an embarrassment.
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