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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Purple Plain (Blu-ray)
The Purple Plain (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // April 5, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted March 24, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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It's title and even some advertising hinted at a Western, but The Purple Plain (1954) is, in fact, a British-made World War II movie set in Burma. Based on H.E. Bates's novel, the movie is also a story of interracial romance, with tragic widower Gregory Peck falling in love with beautiful Win Min Than, impressive in what turned out to be her only movie.

There were many similar pictures throughout the 1950s, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and Sayonara (1957) being two popular examples, but what's most impressive about The Purple Plain is how totally unlike those Hollywood productions The Purple Plain is. Despite an American-born director (actor-turned-editor-turned-director Robert Parrish) and star, its sensibilities and especially its look are resolutely British.

Many years ago, when I first saw Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946), I was quite startled by that film's opening scene, of David Niven's RAF Squadron Leader trapped in the cockpit of a doomed Lancaster bomber over England. Cockpit scenes in war movies are a dime a dozen but Jack Cardiff's Technicolor cinematography was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was both startlingly realistic yet thoroughly stylized and unreal all at once. The effect of this great cinematography, some of the best ever done in a motion picture, was a kind of subconscious enveloping effect, putting the viewer alongside Niven's character as few films have accomplished before or since.

The Purple Plain operates under much the same manner, even expanding to stylized fever dreams similar to scenes in another Powell-Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948). (Yet despite this apparent connections and Cardiff-like photography, The Purple Plain was shot by another master DP, Geoffrey Unsworth.) Meanwhile the familiar story is treated in a very adult manner that never panders or talks down to its audience. The result is an intimate psychological portrait, aided by Gregory Peck's nuanced performance, that's extremely effective, even unforgettable.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray licenses what appears to be a good new master of this three-strip Technicolor production but possibly without access to original black-and-white separations. It includes the original British distributor's logo, Rank, at the head, and may have been done in Britain, or perhaps in America using available film elements held by MGM. Regardless, it mostly looks very good, and is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, an improvement over MGM's earlier full-frame DVD.

Peck plays Bill Forrester, a Canadian serving in the RAF in Burma, flying two-man de Havilland Mosquitos. Vaguely suicidal since the death of his wife in the Blitz back in London on their wedding night, he recklessly endangers both his life and the life of his navigator in a daring attack on Japanese antiaircraft guns. His plane is damaged. Forced to sit out several days in the hot jungle while his aircraft is being repaired, Forrester's behavior attracts the scrutiny of Dr. Harris (Bernard Lee, "M" of the early James Bond movies).

Harris takes Forrester to the refugee hospital of colorful Miss McNab (Brenda De Banzie), and they introduce him to an intelligent, articulate Burmese nursing assistant, Anna (Win Min Than). They quickly are attracted to one another.

Soon, however, on a routine mission to transport Flight Lt. Blore (Maurice Denham) to Myitkyina, he squeezed into the bombing bay, an engine fire causes a spectacular crash. The two men, along with navigator Carrington (Lyndon Brook) survive, but the latter has a bad leg injury. (The movie isn't clear if the leg is badly burned or broken.) Should they stay put, or with their limited water and food supply try to reach a river that's a four-day walk away?

The above synopsis doesn't seem to hold that much promise, but the manner in which The Purple Plain is filmed makes it gripping from beginning to end. In an early scene, for instance, Forrester, drifting in and out of consciousness while tent-mate Blore blathers on, dreams of his wedding night, dancing with his brand-new wife at a nightclub, blissfully happy until a bomb instantly destroys the building. As mentioned earlier, it's both highly stylized and disturbingly realistic at once, with tight close-ups of Peck, his face white with powdery plaster and other debris, frantically searching in the darkness (handheld-camera, quick and chaotic cuts) for his wife. Though in brilliant Technicolor it simultaneously looks a lot like modern-day cellphone videos of moments after a terrorist bombing.

The movie is peppered with moments like these, mostly as it gets inside Forrester's head as he recalls the past or is under duress in the present. Similar moments of this kind of hyper-reality occur when a local village is night-bombed by the Japanese, during the plane crash, and as conditions worsen thereafter.

Both Peck's character and Peck's performance help pull it all off. He's not quite crazy, not entirely suicidal, but grappling with unresolved bitterness that makes him behave erratically, generally with a disregard for his own safety. His scenes with Win Min Than are powerful because they're precisely devoid of the kind of sentiment one usually finds dripping off Hollywood movies. Without giving anything away, the film's brilliant ending respects the audience and lets them fill in the blanks. It's powerful because it's so real and understated.

Most of the film was shot in what was then Ceylon, a few years before David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai unit shot there. Despite a few inadequate miniatures during the flying scenes, it's extremely accurate of the time and, apparently, hardcore war history buffs are pleased with its accuracy.

The movie also affords beady-eyed, bald-pated Maurice Denham a big supporting role, and Bernard Lee one almost as good. Each was a superb character actor but generally had small parts in major films or bigger parts in cheap genre films. De Banzie, more prominent in British films of the period, is excellent also.

Win Min Than did no other films, and after her husband, a Burmese politician, when into hiding following the military coup of General Ne Win she shaved her head, became a Buddhist nun and later sold gourds.

Video & Audio

In 1.66:1 widescreen, The Purple Plain is in good shape, with strong if inconsistent color, good blacks, and detail for a late 3-strip Technicolor production. The audio, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono (English only, no subtitles), is reasonably impressive. Region A encoded. No Extra Features, not even a trailer.

Final Thoughts

Unexpectedly excellent, The Purple Plain strongly resembles a Powell-Pressburger film but isn't, which is an enormous compliment of sorts. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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