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Escape artists: films depicting the horrors of POW camps once showcased the cruelties of our enemies, but now the focus has shifted to our own atrocities.


LAST JULY 4 HOLLYWOOD RELEASED RESCUE DAWN (Gibraltar Films), a patriotic wartime adventure about the real-life exploits of a courageous and highly decorated U.S. naval officer. It seems ironic that director Werner Herzog's gritty and thrilling combat film about Vietnam--the war America has been trying to escape for the last 35 years--should hit theaters just as Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House slugged it out over when and how to extract us from Iraq. It seems doubly ironic that the most popular war film this year is about escape and not victory. And that this POW film portrays our enemies as soulless infidels who--unlike us--torture and abuse prisoners, makes a trifecta of irony.

Some of our best war movies have been about escapes. In the 1950s William Holden first escaped from a German POW camp in Stalag 17 (Paramount, 1953), then four years later extracted himself from a Japanese camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai (Horizon, 1957). In the 1960s Steve McQueen, James Garner, and James Coburn led an all-star cast of escapees breaking out of the toughest POW camp the Germans could devise in The Great Escape (Mirisch, 1963), and two years later Frank Sinatra and friends broke out of an Italian POW camp and heisted a train to Switzerland in Von Ryan's Express (P-R Productions, 1965).

Many of us enjoyed these thrilling tales of escape because they were part of a larger story of victory. Sure, a few thousand of our brave soldiers had been captured by the Axis and rounded up in POW camps, but America and the Allies ultimately won World War II and conquered all the Germans, Japanese, and Italians who ran these awful camps. And in these Hollywood POW films, even our captured troops managed to outwit and evade their enemies. In Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, and Von Ryan's Express, Holden, McQueen, and Sinatra show us why we won the war--because we were braver, smarter, and more resourceful than our enemies. The awful (usually sadistic and always incompetent) commandants of these POW camps showed us why the other side deserved to lose--because they were villainous thugs with little regard for the Geneva Conventions. Can you remember a single POW officer who could even speak about the Geneva Conventions without scowling?

VIETNAM CHANGED OUR appreciation for escape films. Aside from John Wayne's The Green Berets (Batjac, 1968), there were no Hollywood films about victory in Vietnam, no Vietnam-era versions of The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, or Band of Brothers. Instead we had Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and The Deer Hunter--tales of disillusion and defeat. On the small screen American audiences received no reports of victory from the evening news and ultimately selected a president who promised to extract us from that war "with honor," not victory.

But Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (EMI, 1978) tried to snatch victory from the jaws of history by rewriting the escape film as a story of individual courage and survival. In it Robert De Niro's escape from a barbaric (and imaginary) Viet Cong POW camp does not vindicate America's cause or establish our victory--it proves the heroism and loyalty of the lone American soldier. And in subsequent (and inferior) Vietnam-era escape films, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris return again and again to the Communistinfested jungles of Vietnam to rescue their buddies from sadistic and torturing commandants. Now the wartime escape movie is not a part of a larger celebration of victory, but it still celebrates America's moral superiority over its enemies--for we do not torture and abuse our POWs.

LAST YEAR A VERY DIFFERENT SORT OF ESCAPE film was produced about America's most infamous POW camp--intentionally located within the borders of a Communist tyranny so we would not have to honor the U.S. Constitution or the Geneva Conventions. Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo (FilmFour, 2006) recounts the story of three British Muslims arrested in Afghanistan and ultimately sent to America's Cuban detention camp, where they suffered more than two years of abuse without the protections of our own constitution or international law.

Few Americans have seen The Road to Guantanamo, not as many as have seen Rescue Dawn and certainly not as many as saw The Great Escape. But millions did see the video clips or photos from Abu Ghraib and know our government has shown blatant disregard for the Geneva Conventions and international laws protecting POWs. We have heard confirmed reports of secret prison camps and of American agents kidnapping suspected terrorists and handing them over to allies who torture. And we know in our hearts that when our government justifies the illegal treatment of POWs because they are really "criminal enemy combatants" that this is a piece of linguistic chicanery fooling no one.

Like The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn is a tale of courage and contrasts. In these escape films the hero's fortitude in the face of awful circumstances is held up as a model for all of us--a paradigm of what it means to be "American" or civilized. At the same time we are presented with two contrasting views of life--and war--one path following the rule of law and justice and the other breaking every convention in order to win.

AFTER ABU GHRAIB AND GUANTANAMO, NO thoughtful American can watch any POW film without wondering which path our nation is on. But this may not be such a bad thing. If escape films no longer shore up our sense of moral superiority, they can still demand that we have the courage to take a long hard look at ourselves and force us to recommit our nation and our conscience to the heroic path of law and justice.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

Need an escape? Try these movies about POWs:

The Road to Guantanamo (Sony Pictures, 2006)


The Deer Hunter (Universal, 1978)


The Great Escape (MGM, 1963)

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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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