Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Purple Plain is one of those movies that people never forget, even if they
can't remember its title. It's an odd English wartime movie that stresses characters instead of
combat; because it stars Gregory Peck as an emotionally confused flier it will probably
draw comparison to Twelve O'Clock High. It's really a unique drama
that plays like a slightly subdued Powell/Pressburger film -- the intense visuals seem plugged
directly into the emotions of the characters. Couple that with sensitive direction and some offbeat
casting, and The Purple Plain is a strange, hypnotic experience. Savant highly recommends it.
Squadron Leader Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck) is flying in the Burma theater, earning medals for reckless missions in his mosquito fighter bomber. His fellow airmen are convinced he's gone nuts: He's hostile, incommunicative and prone to nightmares and anxiety attacks. Dr. Harris (Bernard Lee) coerces Bill into coming to a Missionary dinner to try and help him relax. There he meets a refugee nurse named Anna (Win Min Than) and begins to emotionally unwind and heal -- his suicidal flying career began with the bombing death of his bride (Josephine Griffin) on her wedding night. Invigorated by his new bond with Anna, Bill takes off on a routine mission to check out a new navigator (Lyndon Brook) and carry a passenger (Maurice Denham) to another camp. Engine trouble forces a jungle landing. Now Bill must take responsibility for his injured comrades. He finds new strength in his commitment to Anna -- who has been told that he's probably already dead.
The Purple Plain is a strong favorite that hits an emotional chord with audiences; Robert Parrish's subdued direction and Eric Ambler's story details have an unspoken feeling of faith and abiding inner peace. It's a basic "theraputic" tale in that we see the emotional healing of a flyer that the R.A.F. thinks may have gone 'round the bend. Instead of making a big melodramatic deal out of Bill Forrester's mental state, Plain shows him as a man with a simple adjustment problem. Rather than deny the memory of his lost wife, he flies like a madman in hope of joining her. Mechanics hate Forrester, his bunkmate lectures him and everyone shakes their heads when Bill purposely flirts with death by strolling across a runway while airplanes are landing. A wounded navigator is relieved that he will no longer have to fly with Forrester.
The kindly doctor (Bernard Lee of The Third Man) knows that the cure is to get Bill back among the living, and so takes him to meet missionary Miss McNab, played
beautifully by Brenda De Banzie. She evacuated Rangoon with thousands of refugees and saw 300 of them die on the trail. Bill has to appreciate that he's not the only one to have suffered, especially when he meets nurse's aide Anna, a Burmese who quickly falls in love with him.
Anna is played by Win Min Than, an unusual beauty with a strange combination of features. Giant Technicolor close-ups treat her with the reverence accorded icons like Jennifer Jones, but after all these years she takes on the mystery of other leading ladies with just one or a few credits, like Roberta Haynes in the similarly wistful film Return to Paradise (another half-forgotten UA gem). Win Min Than's eyes sparkle and her lip curls up in a mysterious smile, and the 50 years that have passed seem like nothing.
Bill's jungle survival problem is a well-directed adventure but what we remember more are the film's odd details. Forrester watches impassively as a Burmese kid torments a little lizard, and contemplates both death and human nature. Miss McNab is a psalm-singing ball of energy that commands respect even as Bill and the Doctor (and Anna) smile at her excess of enthusiasm. Anna gives Bill what is supposed to be a precious ruby, which the scientist later dismisses as worthless. But the ruby is from Anna and as such represents everything of value to Bill. To get back to her, he'll perform a miracle of endurance.
The Purple Plain is realistic without being cynical or overly sentimental. Bill's mental nightmares are a Technicolor vision out of The Red Shoes yet are not presented as more important than the chaos of war around him. Because Bill has lost the respect of his mechanics they ignore his repair instructions, making Bill's instability indirectly responsible for the airplane crash. Likewise, Bill's "we're going to walk out of this jungle" courage can only go so far when the scientist has no faith in his judgment. Bill eventually has to carry on alone, and ask a wounded buddy to trust in him.
The understated ending to The Purple Plain is a thing of beauty, a visual representation of a reward earned and peace regained. There is no emotional reunion, just the anticipation of one, and the effect is sublime. Bill and Anna will be reborn in a figurative marriage bed, whole people once more. We see none of this happen, but we don't need to. The ending is a wonderful transposition of the kind of moment that is supposed to work only in literature. If you see The Purple Plain, make sure to watch the last half of the film without interruption.
Director Robert Parrish was an editor for John Ford with an erratic directing career that yielded several notable films but never a breakthrough hit. The Purple Plain is perhaps his best, followed by the exceptionally rich United Artists western The Wonderful Country. It is yet another film kept from DVD by music rights problems. Perhaps there are more undiscovered gems in his filmography, but his other films readily available are less than stellar: Fire Down Below, Casino Royale, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (Doppelganger).
The Purple Plain was filmed in Sri Lanka on some very impressive locations (Thank you, Art Fisher). Relatively poor models are used for some early flying scenes. Director Clive Donner was Parrish's editor. I'm sure that the story of how Gregory Peck came to be in this picture would make good reading -- at the height of his success (Roman Holiday), he must have believed in the project to commit himself to such a modest production. 1
MGM's DVD of The Purple Plain has a great Technicolor look, with rich images and vivid colors. The character close-ups are worth freezing to appreciate. The audio is good as well but perhaps a tiny bit distorted and lacking in detail.
MGM has presented the film full frame, which is probably a good call. Although the main titles appear to be composed for 1:66, a 1:78 crop-off is too much. Released in 1954 and shot by an English crew, it could easily have been planned as a 1:37 release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Purple Plain rates:
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 19, 2005
1. A note from Dick Dinman of
The DVD Classics Corner:
Glenn: Regarding Peck's involvement in The Purple Plain. In 1952 the Federal Government instituted a plan that offered huge financial tax loopholes/benefits to stars if they would spend at least 2 consecutive years working in Europe --- hence there was an overseas rush of U.S. stars to film projects in Europe. Examples: Peck (Roman Holiday, The Purple Plain, Man with a Million, Moby Dick); Alan Ladd (Paratrooper, Hell Below Zero, The Black Knight), Gene Kelly ( The Devil Makes Three, Crest of the Wave, Invitation to the Dance); Robert Taylor (Ivanhoe, Valley of the Kings, Knights of the Round Table etc. The irony is that most of the loopholes were rescinded and all was for naught, and to top it all off Ladd and Kelly lost their forward momentum from Shane and Singin' in the Rain and irreparably damaged their careers. Dick Dinman
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson