Monday, November 26, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Purple Plain" (1954)

"The Purple Plain" is two movies in one, each of which work decently independently but don't really meld together in any sort of satisfying or even logical way.

It's one of Gregory Peck's darker roles, playing a Canadian pilot in the British Royal Air Force assigned to Burma in the waning days of World War II. Squadron Leader Bill Forrester is widely ostracized within the unit, because of his daredevil flying tactics and his churlish behavior toward his fellow officers. The universal assessment is that he's "over the bend."

Despite sharing a tent with a man named Blore (Maurice Denham) for several months, they know virtually nothing about each other -- other than Blore's continuing insistence that Forrester would find his life more purposefully if was married like himself. Little does he know (since Forrester won't say), but Forrester lost his newlywed bride during a London air raid early in the war.

Since then, he's been on a one-man suicide mission in the skies.

The first half of the movie is taken up with Forrester gradually coming out of his shell with the help of Anna, a refugee from Rangoon who is helping the local Burmese refugees along with Miss McNab (Brenda De Banzie), an indomitable Scottish missionary. The quiet, soulful Anna soothes and calms Forrester, and he tells her the source of his pain when his wife was killed.
"After that I didn't want to go on living. You'd think that'd be easy enough in war, but it didn't work. I wanted to die, but I got medals instead."
Anna is played by Win Min Than, a luminous beauty whose appearance in "The Purple Plain" constituted her one and only film role. The romance between Anna and Forrester is notable for its fairly progressive take on interracial romance -- none of the other Brits or Burmese seem to regard it as any big deal. Though it should be noted that their only kiss is filmed from an obscuring angle behind a large boulder. The film ends with an image of Forrester climbing into a bed where she lies sleeping, which was something of a taboo circa 1954.

As soon as the audience gets engaged in this love affair, though, the manly adventure portion commences and Anna is not seen again (except once, briefly) until that ending.

Forrester and his young new navigator Carrington (Lyndon Brook) are assigned to fly Blore to his new assignment. The aircraft depicted in the film are Mosquitos, peppy little two-seat fighter/bombers depicted in other films such as "633 Squadron." Blore is ensconced in a hammock hung in the bomb bay. Unfortunately, one of their engines bursts into flames and they crash-land 20 miles deep into Japanese territory.

Movies of this ilk usually set up a race between the heroic stranded Allied servicemen and the relentless enemy hounding their tails, but here we never see or hear any trace of the Japanese. The only race is between the three men and their own impending demise from exposure to the brutal Burmese heat and lack of food and water.

Forrester determines that no rescue mission will ever find them, and urges them to march to the river that marks the boundary of enemy territory. The pugnacious Blore, a desk job man with little grasp of the intricacies of aviation tactics, insists they stay. Eventually Forrester forces the decision, and they rig up a stretcher for Carrington (whose leg was burned in the crash) and set off.

Director Robert Parrish manages to capture the overheated atmosphere of Burma, showing the sweat pouring off the characters' heads and staining clear through their clothes. He also adds a constant buzz of insects to the soundtrack during the sequence on the eponymous plain, which adds to the oppressive feeling of that portion of the film.

"The Purple Plain" was a box-office hit that was nominated for Best Film in the BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Oscars.

The story was based on a novel by H.E. Bates, a military reporter who traveled to Burma during the war, and translated for the screen by Eric Ambler. It ends up feeling like two incomplete halves of a good movie. In the second half the central dynamic is the contrast between Forrester, who remains resolute and brave, and Blore, who becomes increasingly unhinged and eventually abandons his fellows.

This would seem to set up the idea that Blore's assertion had been true, that having a purpose in life -- i.e., a family and/or loved one -- allows a man to persevere. Forrester, having found love again with Anna, is able to endure. But this then begs the question of why family man Blore succumbs when confronted with life-threatening challenges.

So Blore is right for Forrester, but wrong about himself?

2.5 stars out of four

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