The Wooden Horse

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The Wooden Horse
The Wooden Horse FilmPoster.jpeg
DVD cover
Directed by Jack Lee
Produced by Ian Dalrymple
Written by Eric Williams
Starring Leo Genn
Anthony Steel
David Tomlinson
Music by Clifton Parker
Cinematography C.M. Pennington-Richards
Edited by Peter Seabourne
John Seabourne Snr.
Production
company
Distributed by British Lion Film Corporation
Release dates
  • 16 October 1950 (1950-10-16)
Running time 101 mins
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office £266,545 (UK)[1]

The Wooden Horse is a 1950 British Second World War war film starring Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson and directed by Jack Lee. It is based on the book of the same name by Eric Williams, who also wrote the screenplay.[2]

The film depicts the true events of an escape attempt made by POWs in the German POW camp Stalag Luft III. The wooden horse in the title of the film is a piece of exercise equipment the prisoners used to conceal their escape attempt.

It was shot in a low-key style, with a limited budget and a cast including many amateur actors.

Plot[edit]

The somewhat fictionalised version of the true story is set in Stalag Luft III — the same POW camp where the real events depicted in the film The Great Escape took place, albeit from a different compound – and involved Williams, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, all inmates of the camp. In the book and film, the escapees are renamed "Flight Lieutenant Peter Howard", "Captain John Clinton" and "Philip Rowe".

The prisoners are faced with the problem of digging an escape tunnel despite the accommodation huts, within which the tunnel entrance could be concealed, being a considerable distance from the perimeter fence. They came up with an ingenious way of digging the tunnel with its entrance located in the middle of an open area relatively near the perimeter fence and using a vaulting horse (constructed largely from plywood from Canadian Red Cross parcels) to cover the entrance.

Recruiting fellow-prisoners to form a team of vaulters, each day they carry the horse out to the same spot, with a man hidden inside. The prisoners begin a gymnastic exercise using the vaulting horse, while the concealed man digs down below the horse. At the finish of the exercises, the digger places wooden boards, cut to fit the aperture, in the hole, and fills the space with sandbags and dry sand kept for the purpose – wet sand taken from below the surface would be darker and hence give away the activities.

Eventually, as the tunnel lengthens, two men are hidden inside the horse while a larger group of men exercised, the two men continuing the tunnel digging. At the end of the day, they again conceal the tunnel entrance and hide inside the horse while it is carried back to their hut. They also devise a method of disposing of the earth coming out of the tunnel. They recruit a third man, Phil, to assist them, with the promise that he will join the escape.

At the final break-out, Howard hides in the tunnel during an Appell (roll call), before three men are carried over in the horse: the third to replace the tunnel trap.

Howard and Clinton travel by train to the Baltic port of Lübeck; (in fact, they travelled via Frankfurt to Stettin). Phil elects to travel alone, posing as a Norwegian margarine manufacturer and travelling by train via Danzig (now Gdansk). He was the first to make it to neutral territory.

Howard and Clinton contact French workers and through them meet 'Sigmund', a Danish resistance worker who smuggles them onto a Swedish ship. They have to leave by rowing boat and arrive in Copenhagen, before being shipped to Sweden. There they meet Phil, who arrived earlier.

Some details from Williams' book were not used in the film, e.g. the escaped POWs discussing the possibility of visiting potentially neutral "whorehouses" in Germany. The idea was abandoned because of fear that it might be a trap.

Production[edit]

The film was a breakthrough role for Anthony Steel.[3]

Reception[edit]

The film was the third most popular film at the British box office in 1950[4] and led to a series of stories about POWS, including Albert R.N. (1953), The Colditz Story (1955), The One That Got Away (1957), The Camp on Blood Island (1958), and Danger Within (1959).

Cast[edit]

Trivia[edit]

The Wooden Horse plan itself was actually conceived and entirely thought through by Williams and Michael Codner in equal measures. In Oliver Philpot's later book The Stolen Journey the author made it clear that he initially thought the plan was "crackers", telling its inventors "I give it a couple of days!".[5] Nevertheless, Philpot helped with the sand dispersal, and later with the actual digging – at which point he was invited to take part in the escape.

The actor Peter Butterworth, who appeared in many of the Carry On films, was one of the vaulters in the real-life escape. He applied for a role in the subsequent film but did not get a part as he was not considered to look convincingly heroic and athletic enough.[6]

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Vincent Porter, 'The Robert Clark Account', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 20 No 4, 2000 p492
  2. ^ Williams, Eric, The Wooden Horse (Collins, 1949)
  3. ^ "Best-seller "The Wooden Horse" comes to screen.". The Australian Women's Weekly (1933–1982) (1933–1982: National Library of Australia). 4 February 1950. p. 36. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  4. ^ "BOB HOPE BEST DRAW IN BRITISH THEATRES.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 29 December 1950. p. 4. Retrieved 24 April 2012. 
  5. ^ Philpot, Oliver, Stolen Journey (Hodder and Stoughton, 1950), p. 215
  6. ^ http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0125350/bio