Short Takes: War and Prison -Two Views of Man’s Brutality

At first glance these two films would seem to have very little in common. The first was made by an expatriate arty American filmmaker, the second a former actor turned writer/director of little consequence and barely remembered today.

Joseph Losey established himself as a unique filmmaker to watch with his first feature, “The Boy with Green Hair.” He would make four more films before getting caught up in the HUAC witch hunts and decided to leave the country rather than face Joe McCarthy’s inquisition. His first stop was Italy where he made one film before settling in for good in England where by the early 1960’s he began a cycle of films (The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between) that would cement his reputation, especially with a series of works written by playwright Harold Pinter.

Crane Wilbur began his career as a suave, handsome, silent film actor, most famously as Pearl White’s co-star in “The Perils of Pauline” serial. Wilbur also showed a knack for writing and directing becoming a triple threat. By the time the sound era arrived, Wilbur’s acting career was on its last legs; he would spend the remainder of his career behind the screen. As a screenwriter Wilbur wrote or co-wrote such films as “Crime School,” “Alcatraz Island,” “House of Wax,” “Women’s Prison,” “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima,” “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” “He Walked by Night,” Crime Wave,” and “The Phenix City Story.” As a director, Wilbur spent the bulk  of his career in “B” film alley with most of the films largely forgotten today. Best remembered is arguably his next to last directorial effort, “The Bat” starring Vincent Price.

So what do Joseph Losey and Crane Wilbur have in common as filmmakers? On the surface, very little, but in the two short reviews that follow, they thematically came together making two works about man’s inhumanity and brutality to man; animal instinct at its lowest level.

“King and Country” is a dark, brutal, effective attack on war by the exiled Losey. A shell shocked soldier (Tom Courtenay) is put on trial for desertion after a foolish moment where he walks away from the brutality and loss of humanity of it all (and one has to ask how foolish is it to walk away from the horrors of war?). His lawyer (Dirk Bogarde) is a straight-laced military man who at first can find little, even no sympathy of the young though war-weary seasoned soldier. As the film progresses the lawyer discovers the layers of human frailty in a boy scarred by the violence and brutality of constant battle, and the strong unforgiving arm of military injustice. There is a most powerful scene during an interrogation by Bogarde of an arrogant doctor portrayed by Leo McKern defending his wrong-headed medical position for the young soldier’s behavior. “King and Country” is not a film for the faint of heart. There are some very unpleasant scenes of animal cruelty requiring a strong stomach used to reflect the numbing effect the brutality of war has on men. The film contains masterful performances from both Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde and is earnestly directed by Losey. “King and Country” had its American premiere at the second New York Film Festival in 1964 before beginning a regular run at an Eastside theater in Manhattan. (****)

Have you ever heard the expression, “the walls have ears?” Well, in “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison,” the walls don’t have ears, but they do have a voice as the narrator of this film. That’s right, it’s not a prisoner, or the Warden, or an investigative reporter that does the narration here, it is the prison itself that speaks to the audience! Once you get over your first thoughts of “this is already heading toward the dumpster,” this little oddity from the Warner Brothers vault is not a bad little film. A vicious warden (Ted DeCorsia) takes no prisoners (pun intended) as he cracks down on anyone who does not follow his strict and archaic rules. Brutal scenes of prisoners in solitary, their hands chained behind their back raised high above their heads to the wall, so they are forced to continuously stand in dark dank, cold dungeon like cells are cruelly inhumane.  A new Captain (David Brain) of the guards attempts to implement a more humane approach but is met with resistance from the warden. This all leads to a bloody violent shootout during an attempted escape. Steve Cochran heads the cast as one of the prisoners along with character actors Paul Picerni (The Untouchables), William Campbell (Battle Cry, Love Me Tender) and Philip Carey (One Life to Live). Overall, the film is a fairly standard prison drama, the kind Warner Brothers did so well over the years, however Ted de Corsia’s warden is a standout rivaling Hume Cronyn’s Captain Munsey in “Brute Force” for the insensitive “Warden of the Year” award. (***1/2)

You  may want to check out my review of Joseph Losey’s noir thriller The Prowler.

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17 comments on “Short Takes: War and Prison -Two Views of Man’s Brutality

  1. Fascinating histories and reviews. I have heard of both movies, but I really have to steel myself to watch pictures featuring the imprisoned. You make the effort sound worthwhile.

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    • John Greco says:

      Patricia,

      Prision films probably can be described as a sub-genre of the crime film. There are plenty of them out there and some are a bit tougher to watch than others. Thanks for the nice words!

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  2. Dave Crosby says:

    John, I saw the Losey film recently on Turner Classics. Why is this film not considered one of the classics by critics? I was thoroughly gripped by it and once again shook my head in wonder at the seriousness so lacking in film today (not totally but nonetheless lacking). Bogart is a sensation as the lawyer experiencing increasing anger with the injustice of this trial. I cannot emphasize enough that audiences really must demand better films by avoiding the films that merely pander to the worst motives of audiences. All one need do is take a gander at the print ad or video preview to see that a movie will be an utter waste of time. We ought to let movie-makers know that as adult movie-lovers we’re fed up with junk.

    One question: any idea where we can locate the Folsom prison picture? I have a vague memory of it and maybe I saw parts of it. But your review makes it sound compelling.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave,

      Glad you go to see KING AND COUNTRY.I have heard of this film for many, many years and finally got the opportunity to catch, like you, on TCM. That station is truly film lovers heaven, a continuous film festival! Unfortunately, a lot of the junk made today is made because it makes money and despite films being an art, they need to make the dough. I will say this, if you look close enough at some of the smaller films, the non-comic book fantasies that are out there, you can find some very good films.

      As for “Folsom,” I saw that on TCM not too long ago but it is available from Warner Brothers. Below is a link.

      http://www.wbshop.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-WB-Site/default/Search-Show?q=inside+the+walls+of+folsom+prison

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  3. Wow – Thanks John, have heard of neither but appear to be worth viewing – will have to save for winter viewing = Cheers!

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    • John Greco says:

      Hi Michael,

      KING AND COUNTRY is definitely worth watching! A downbeat dose of reality on war and its effect on people. The FOLSOM film is more in line with the old Warner Brothers type prison dramas with Cagney and Bogart only a bit harsher. Thanks!!!

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  4. Dave Crosby says:

    I actually wrote Bogart when I meant Bogarde, as in Dirk Bogarde. What was I thinking? Was there a film in which Bogart played a lawyer that impressed me deeply enough to cause this error? (It’s easy to see I’m an admirer of Freud.)

    Thanks very much for the link, John. And yes, I agree about TCM. It’s become one of the great national resources for the arts. As the years pass, it’s going to become even more important. The transfer of film to video is an extraordinary blessing because we’ll save all the films we have now. It’s a tragedy, I think, that we lost approximately half of the films from the silent era, for example. And who knows how many sound films? There are more recent films, “Vertigo,” for instance, that nearly disappeared, saved by restoration efforts. And many excellent movies exist today only in very bad prints that are depressing to sit through. As a nation, as a culture, we need to do so much more to preserve our film heritage, but politicians certainly don’t seem to see anything to be concerned about here.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave,

      I realized who you meant and conincidently, Humphrey Bogart did paly a lawyer in Ncik Ray’s “Knock on Any Door.”

      The U.S. has always been bad in supporting the cultural arts and whenever financial cuts have to be made that seems to be one target they never forget to attack. You’re right, many, many films have been lost due to neglect, and not just by the gov’t but by the studios who did not see any reason to save their products until video came along. Sad!

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  5. Sam Juliano says:

    John: I consider myself a huge Losey fan, and I am quite happy to see a review here of KING AND COUNTRY, a film that rarely gets any attention, especially when Losey’s catalogue includes the linkes of DON GIOVANNI, THE SERVANT, THE CRIMINAL, THE PROWLER, THE GO-BETWEEN and a few others. Courtenay and Bogarde are indeed excellent! Wonderful dual review here with persuasive points of comparison!

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      Well aware of your love for Losey! KING AND COUNTRY is a terrific, intelligent, hard look at military and its laws. I am a big fan ot THE PROWLER and like THE SERVANT quite a bit. Bogarde in another fine performance. THE CRIMINAL I have a recording of off TCM but have yet to watch, hopefully I will soon. Neither have I seen the other two mentioned. Thanks again!!!

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  6. ClassicBecky says:

    Both films are new to me, which I find surprising because of the casts and because I like the subjects very much. I’m going to try to find them. Great review, John. You have me very interested.

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  7. The Lady Eve says:

    A really excellent piece, John. I haven’t seen either film, and am no doubt too faint-hearted to get through “King and Country”. But I appreciate your write-up on Losey (somehow I didn’t know he was a HUAC target) and Wilbur (whom I was unaware of) as well as these two films on the dark subject of human brutality.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Patty, – I just finished reading Patrick McGilligan’s new bio on Nick Ray and one of the things I discovered was that Ray and Joseph Losey both came from LaCrosse Wi. and knew each other at teenagers. KING AND COUNTRY is a dark strong film. THe Folsom Prison flick is much more in the vain of the old Warner Brothers prson films.

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  8. Rick29 says:

    John, I’ve seen neither film, which is lame because I admire much of Losey’s work, especially THESE ARE THE DAMNED. His films always warrant a second look. I remember in THE SERVANT that the positioning of characters changes throughout the film to signify who is the dominant person in the relationship. I digress..I very much enjoyed both of your reviews.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Rick, THE SERVANT is a great film which I only recently watched for the first time a few months ago. I have another Losey film I recorded off TCM called THE CRIMMINAL which I still need to watch.

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