How realistic are POW films?

For my POW coursework I watched three films. They were The Great Escape, Escape to Victory and The Colditz Story. The aim of this coursework is to compare the films to historical evidence and judge the realism of the films. I will be judging the aspects of the film that are realistic and unrealistic, such as health and hygiene, activities, psychological aspects and the shortages. I will then compare what I see on the films to the sources to get a completely reliable overview of what P.O.W camps were like and how realistically they are portrayed in the films. I will also look at the genre, film director and the date the film was made, to see whether the films are biased.

Escape to Victory was the first film I watched. I was about a group of prisoners in a POW camp participating in a football game against the German national team. The plot was about the prisoners inventing an escape plan due to happen at the time of the football game, but instead of escaping they choose to continue with the football game instead. It was produced in the 80’s and directed by a man called John Huston. The genre of this film is sport, war, action. It is a fictional story. I would be targeted towards British, Americans and French as that is the perspective the film is cast from.

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There are many aspects of escape to victory which I know are realistic. For example, the relationship between the prisoners and the POW guards does represent realistically what may have happened. The guards are referred to as ‘goons’ which I know is a very common term used to insult the guards. Also it shows the guards to be angry at the eastern Europeans. It was quite common for the eastern Europeans and the polish to have smaller rations than the other prisoners and they were often starved. I know this would have been a very common sighting in a prisoner of war camp because the Germans blamed the eastern Europeans and the Polish for the start of the war and therefore treated the eastern Europeans worst in the POW camps.

Another realistic aspect of Escape to Victory would be the way in which torture was used. In escape to victory it shows the eastern Europeans and the polish being starved. I know that starvation was used as a form of torture. Robert Gaylor, a private, was captured in 1940 and spent the war years being shuffled form one stalag to another. In an account he wrote from his time in the camps, he said that ‘I did not find the deaths as unnerving as the occasional cases of madness caused by hunger.’ This further strengthens my point that starvation was used as a form or torture. However I know that not all of the prisoners were starved. It was mainly the eastern Europeans and the Polish. Also in the Colditz POW camp source B6 tells me how the Geneva Convention was ‘applied in a conscientious way’ and starvation was uncommon in those camps because the POW guards were more aware of the fact that the officers in the Colditz camp had more power and intelligence than the other POW meaning that they were more likely to question the acts of the German guards and make sure that the Geneva Convention was kept to.

The references to health and hygiene in Escape to Victory were realistic. It showed starved men, who were dirty and lice ridden. I know this is realistic because in Robert Gaylor’s account he mentioned dysentery, pneumonia, black-outs and scabies. Making it clear the conditions were in no way sanitary.

I know the way in which escape plans were portrayed were very realistic. The film showed how each prisoner would take on separate roles. Source B4 tells says some of the roles used were ‘lock-picking, forgery, stealing, deception with false forms’ all of which would contribute to an escape of a group of people. This is one aspect which I have found to be realistic throughout all three films. I know that escape plans are formulated like this because in all of the personal accounts I have read by surviving prisoners they have all mentioned how they worked as a team to create an escape.

Even though there are many realistic aspects of Escape to Victory, there are also many unrealistic aspects. An example of this would be that the appearance of the camps was quite clean. They appeared to be reasonably hygienic and were even referred to as ‘holiday camps’ I know this is unrealistic because if prisoners were in such a bad condition then their camps can’t have been clean. Also many sources describe the camps as ‘unclean’ and ‘disease ridden’ source A1 describes how a medical officer ‘warned us that the drinking water from the pump was the probable source of our dysentery.

Another unrealistic aspect is that I know from my own knowledge and from accounts I have read that showers and clothes were a shortage. In source A1 it describes how between three men ‘the overcoat was our only bed clothing.’ further emphasising the point that there was a shortage of clothing. In Escape to Victory the football team have their own showers and their own football kit which, under the circumstances of the time would have been impossible.

Furthermore the behaviour and the attitudes of the POW guards were very unrealistic. They are shown smiling and joking with the prisoners which I know from Lord John Russell’s account of conditions in a prisoner of war camps was untrue where the guards were described as having ‘no respect’ for the prisoners. Also it shows the guards and the prisoners having a mutual respect for each other , which is another unrealistic aspect as I know that the prisoners did not respect the guards and referred to them as ‘goons’

Perhaps the most unrealistic point would have been that after all of the time and effort put into the escape plan, instead of escaping they decide to continue with the football match. In real life circumstances would not have happened as escaping would have been more of a priority than winning football math.

I think that entertainment is more important than realism in this film because it seems as though entertainment purposes are more of a priority than portraying the camps as realistic. I think its ain priority was to achieve a box office hit and not to vaguely inform the target audience of the conditions of the prisoner of war camps. I think minor elements of this film are realistic and many aspects of it do not match what is written in accounts of survivors from the prisoner of war camps.

The Colditz Story was the second film I watched. The plot was about a group of allied prisoners of various nationalities pooling their resources to plan numerous escapes from an ‘escape- proof’ German prisoner of war camp situated in the Colditz castle. It was directed by a man called Guy Hamilton with some assistance from Pat Reid a survivor from the Colditz Story is based on the experiences of Pat Reid, who plays one of the characters in the film. It was released in 1955, 10 years after the war ended. Its target audience would consist of mainly British people, as that is the perspective the film is cast from. Its genre is war, comedy and drama.

Similarly to the other two films, The Colditz Story also has a mix of realistic and unrealistic aspects. The camps appearance was one of the aspects that were portrayed realistically. It shows Colditz surrounded by barbed wire, with search lights scanning the perimeter and guards with guard dogs roaming the camp. Source A2 also shows the camps appearance similarly to what is sown in the films, with the barbed wiring and a sign saying ‘by trespassing the warn-fence the guard will shoot immediately,’ further supporting the evidence that the camp was portrayed realistically in Colditz story.

Also throughout the film the prisoners are all shown in one set of clothes. This also seems very realistic as in source A1 it describes the clothes as ‘dirty’ I know that POW amps had many shortages such as toilet paper, anaesthetic, be clothing and everyday clothing, showing that it would be unlikely to have more than one set of clothing. Meaning that to show the prisoners in one set of clothing throughout the film would be good in comparison to the shortages and conditions endured in the POW camps. The health and hygiene conditions shown in the films were very similar to the descriptions in the sources, such as A1, A4 and B6. It shows the living conditions very cramped with lots of people sleeping in the same bedroom, which I know is realistic as the sources describe the camps very similarly as the camps were sometimes shown in the films with diseases like scabies and diarrhoea being caught due to overcrowding and unclean conditions. However source B3 does mention how the conditions in Colditz were better that the other camps and I do see this being portrayed fairly in the films.

Another aspect which is shown realistically in Colditz Story is the activities the prisoners participated in. it shows roll call effectively and realistically being carried out in which the routine is the same as when described in the sources. It shows exercise and ball games being carried out in the yard which I know from the sources is realistic, also it shows aspects which are needed for escape plans such as lock picking and forging which according to source B4 ‘did not form any part of the curriculum for officer training’ ‘yet as a POW one had to become a master of al these arts.’

Despite all of the realistic elements there are also a few unrealistic elements in Colditz Story. Firstly the German prisoner of war guards were portrayed as dim-witted which is unrealistic. Even if there were a few slightly ‘dim-witted’ guards they cannot all have been ‘fat and stupid’ as the film director has portrayed the stereotypical POW guard.. I think they were portrayed like this because the target audience is mainly British people whom after only ten years may still be feeing quite bitter and resentful towards the Germans.

Another unrealistic aspect would be that all of the men appeared to be quite healthy even though there was no evidence as o what or how they ate. Source A1 describes me ‘blacking out’ due to the lack of food. Even though source A4 says that there was no food shortages this is realistic because colditz was an oflag and the Geneva Convention was kept to unlike the other POW camps. The fact that there were no food shortages contradicts with many other sources but we have to take into account tat the Geneva Convention was kept to. Even though many of the sources would agree that there were no food shortages within the county just within the camps because starvation was used as a form of torture, which is backed up by evidence use in source A1. I think the maker of Colditz Story chose to portray these men as healthy looking because he could not get actors into the same physical conditions as then me as it would be dangerous to their health. Also in order to create a box office hit they would need to make the prisoners as attractive and as appealing as possible to attract the attention of the British female audience.

The way the POW guards are treated is another unrealistic aspect. It portrays the prisoners as being unruly and unable to control which does not comply with any of the other sources where the guards are described as being in complete control. Source A4 describes how the guards use beating as a punishment. Whereas in Colditz its shows the prisoners teasing and taunting the guards with no repercussions at all.

Out of all the films I would say that Colditz Story is the most realistic. The realistic aspects outweigh the non realistic aspects making the film a reliable source of information. This may have been because P. Reid, a survivor from a POW camp assisted in the directing of the film. The film is in the British perspective and set 10 years after the war, meaning that the French director may have still been bitter. I think that this film is based more on realism that entertainment and overall would be very efficient in getting a clear view as t what the conditions were like in prisoner of war camps.

The Great Escape was the third film I watched it was released in 1963. It has a war and drama genre. It was directed by an American man called John Sturges. The great escape was based on a true story. The plot of the great escape is that the whole camp teamed together to dig three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry. The plan was to smuggle across about 250 of the prisoners through these tunnels fall short of the destination and they get caught.

As with the other two films there are realistic and non realistic elements in the great escape as well. To begin with the health and hygiene aspects are reasonably realistic. It shows the prisoners being poisoned by their own moonshine. I know that it was common for prisoners to create their own moonshine and to sometimes be physically affected by the harmful substances fermented in the moonshine. Source B6 describes how ingredients used for alcohol were available for consumption.

Another realistic aspect of The Great Escape would be the activities that the prisoners would participate in. the great escape shows activities such as gardening, escape planning, celebrating certain occasions and sporting activities. I know that these activities as many sources agree with this. Source B6 describes how for Christmas and new years they were allowed celebrations. Captain Patrick Reid described how the POW spent New Years Eve ‘laughing and singing’ and making ‘snake chains,’ he then went onto say ‘if we prisoners could ever have felt happy and unrepressed, we were happy that evening.’ Also sporting activities were an activity done in most of the camps for entertainment and fitness reasons.

The psychological aspects regarding escapes were very realistic. It showed prisoners escaping and when they caught they are not sad and treat it as a joke. This is a realistic aspect and is a realistic and is noted in most of the sources. A failed escape is treated as a joke and was described in some source as a morale booster. Also the description in some of the prisoners was portrayed really well. Many sources referred to some escapes as ‘desperate attempts’ which is realistic and is shown in all three of the films.

Also the ways in which escape plans are portrayed are very realistic. Many prisoners tried to escape by digging tunnels and even though it was easily discovered and not very easy to hide few were still successful. Also it was very common for prisoners to have decoy escape plans, where they would have an escape plan which was very easy to uncover to make the guards believe there were no other escape plans going on. Another realistic about the escape plans were the punishments involved. Solitary isolation in the ‘cooler’ was commonly used after an escape plan had been discovered by the POW guards. The other two films support this as they include similar punishments. Also source A1 says if you got caught trying to escape the prison guards would shoot you, which is hinted at, at the end of the great escape.

There are also many unrealistic elements in the great escape, for example one of the many shortages in prisoner of war camps were clothing and bedclothes, but in the great escape each prisoner had a few changes of clothes and spare bedclothes. Each item of clothing seemed clean. I know this is unrealistic because in source A1 it says how they received soap, and instead of washing themselves they washed their clothes to get rid of lice and to reduce the risk of catching scabies. I think the director chose to keep the men clean cut to appeal to the female audience.

Another unrealistic aspect is the way in which the POW guards are portrayed; they were portrayed as being dumb when in reality they wouldn’t have been. Also it is shown that the guards were not respected and were easily deceive, and even in some cases bribed. All the sources contradicted with this and said that any disrespect was done slyly. Also source A4 said the guards had no respect for prisoners and communication was minimal. I think that the director wanted to include this relationship between the guards and prisoners because from the perspective of the target audience they would want to see the German guards ridiculed.

Furthermore whilst in isolation the prisoners were allowed to communicate with each other. Realistically this would not have been allowed to happen. As shown in all of the films isolation is solitary and it would not have been allowed to communicate through the chambers of isolation. Also Steve McQueen was allowed to take in his sports equipment into the isolation with him. This is even more unrealistic as he would not have been allowed entertainment during his isolation period.

The final unrealistic aspect of The Great Escape would be the fact that hot showers and cigarettes were available. Many camps didn’t even have running water; source A1 tells us how the running water got contaminated by the toile water, showing that there was a shortage of water. I think the scenes created were for entertainment purposes only and were not for informative reason.

In conclusion I think that The Colditz Story is the most realistic as it is set in the Colditz castle where the prisoner of war camps was actually based. In terms of actual overall realistically Colditz story has more realistic aspects than non-realistic aspects making it the most realistic. The least realistic film was Escape to Victory. It had few realistic aspects and I believe it was directed more for entertainment purposes than to show the conditions of the POW camps. It had more unrealistic points than realistic points. In each film the aspect which was portrayed most realistically was the appearance of the camps. I think this is more for the purpose of setting the scene than for informative reasons. I think that Colditz Story is useful as historical evidence as it portrays the conditions of the camps well. However the other two films would not be as reliable as Colditz Story as they were more for entertainment purposes than for informative reasons.