"Anyone who doesn't enter into the spirit of free discussion will be severely punished!" - North Korean POW camp announcement
"Ya dirty cruds!" - Pvt. Pike (Leo Gordon)
It's no surprise that The Bamboo Prison (1954) had the working title I Was a Prisoner in Korea. The film is classically, hysterically anticommunist, though unlike most such pictures this one is fairly well made, its naiveté and political extremism notwithstanding. The picture also boasts an exceptionally good cast of future stars and character actors, and it's the third of just four movies featuring young leading man Robert Francis (The Caine Mutiny), who died in a plane crash just seven months after this was released.
Part of Sony's manufactured-on-demand Choice Collection, The Bamboo Prison is a rare case of Sony mucking up the video transfer. The movie is clearly shot for 1.85:1 widescreen but the video transfer is full-frame 1.37:1, though to its credit the transfer is otherwise excellent.
In North Korea, captured American soldiers including Cpl. Brady (Brian Keith) arrive at a POW camp manned by Chinese soldiers. Sick and starving, the new arrivals are greeted warmly by other American prisoners and Father Francis Dolan (E.G. Marshall). However, Brady and his men are shocked to find one prisoner, Sgt. John Rand (Robert Francis), being given preferential treatment as an openly traitorous collaborator, or "progressive." He gets a bed to sleep on while the others make do on the floor, with Rand refusing even to surrender his cot for a deathly ill prisoner.
However, Rand reveals his true colors to Brady a few days later. Both are in fact agents, Rand using his "progressive" status and ability to move about the camp freely to locate documents incriminating the Communist Chinese of POW atrocities and of Soviet involvement in the war effort, evidence Brady is expected to deliver to his superiors.
Rand becomes more than a little friendly with Tanya (Dianne Foster), a former Russian ballerina now the wife of American (but English-accented) traitor Clayton (Murray Matheson). Rand hopes to turn her and gain access to Clayton's top-secret files.
The Bamboo Prison fascinates. Co-writer Jack DeWitt had an unremarkable career, save perhaps for the interesting low-budget noir Portland Exposé (1957), until striking gold with A Man Called Horse (1970) and its sequels. The other credited writer, Edwin Blum, co-wrote the screenplay for the similarly structured Stalag 17 (1953), but that famous Billy Wilder movie was a close adaptation of the play rather than an original work. Blum, however, was very active in Democratic Party politics, including the Adlai Stevenson and Helen Gahagan campaigns and, according to the IMDb, may even have coined the phrase "Tricky Dick," in reference to Gahagan's opponent, Richard Nixon.
The screenplay for The Bamboo Prison is a dizzying mix of left-leaning and far-right concepts. On one hand, the camp's lone medic is African-American Doc Jackson (Earle Hyman, The Cosby Show), whom the others treat with the utmost respect and admiration yet without ever referring to his race. When the Chinese threaten him, the others argue for his release: "He's one of us!" says one. "A G.I." The men are also a veritable melting pop of cultures, including Greek and Hispanic, yet the movie generally avoids war movie stereotypes, at least insofar as the American characters are concerned.
And yet when Jackson is interrogated, the film's arguments against Communism, following attempts made by Commandant Hsai Tung (Richard Loo) and Comrade-Instructor Li Ching (Keye Luke) to indoctrinate Jackson, only ring hollow. When they suggest that a white medical student probably wouldn't have had to serve, Jackson counters, "I enlisted." When they point to racist white Americans who'd regard Jackson as a "nigger," he insists that he's never encountered racism in America ever, as if it never existed. Further, Jackson explains that reading Marx and Lenin he rejects their notion that in a capitalist society the rich get richer and poor get poorer. No, that could never happen.
Oddly but not surprisingly, North Koreans are nowhere to be seen in this Korean War movie, while the Chinese POW staff play second fiddle, even a kind of comedy relief, to the more sinister activities of Clayton and another American revealed as a murderous spy. Keye Luke especially has an atypically embarrassing role to play as POWs constantly "rib" his lame efforts to instruct the Americans in Communist teachings.
Robert Francis is quite good, completely believable as a traitor in the early scenes even though his star billing all but assures the audience that it's all a ruse. Comrade Clayton is unsubtly written but subtly played by Matheson, best remembered as the Clown in the classic Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." "Hmm," he ponders, after learning of Tanya's late-inning collaboration with the enemy, "I can see this is going to take a little brainwashing - and you know how much I love brainwashing!"
The supporting actors playing POWs go through the usual motions for such characters, but are portrayed by actors familiar to most viewers. Besides Francis, Keith, Hyman, and Marshall, also appearing are Jack Kelly (Maverick), King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Leo Gordon, Aaron Spelling, and Joe Turkel (The Shining, Blade Runner), the latter even doing a fine Boris Karloff imitation in one scene.
Video & Audio
The Bamboo Prison was released in December 1954, well after Columbia began cropping all its non-'scope productions to a standardized 1.85:1. It's not clear how or why this title slipped through the cracks, but the opening titles and compositions clearly call for 1.85:1 cropping. Fortunately, the transfer otherwise is so good even zoomed in on widescreen sets the image holds up reasonably well. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
A fascinating artifact and, all things considered, pretty good in spite of its being occasionally hysterical, The Bamboo Prison is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.