Sunday, 15 January 2017

The McKenzie Break (1970)

The 1970 film The McKenzie Break remains one of the most neglected and subversive entries in the war film genre; the latter because the film takes the original approach of taking the point of view of Nazis attempting to escape from a Scottish POW camp and their British captors, and it is that distinctive, bold move that perhaps makes it neglected too.

The film is based on a novel by Sidney Shelley and is clearly influenced by the German escape plan Operation Kiebitz from Bowmanville in Ontario, Canada, and the exploits of Luftwaffe pilot Oberleutnant Franz von Werra,who made good his escape en route to a Canadian POW camp and  whose story was immortalised in the 1957 war film The One That Got Away starring Hardy Kr├╝ger, a film which this stands comparison too. 

However, where (if my memory serves me correctly) much is made of von Werra being a professional serviceman rather than a Nazi, our central German protagonist here, Helmut Griem's naval officer, Schlueter, is unmistakably a loyal and true believer of the Third Reich's cause and an utterly ruthless, unlikeable bastard who doesn't hesitate to kill his own men to secure his own bid for freedom.

The key to The McKenzie Break is the personality clash between  Schlueter and Brian Keith's Captain Jack Connor, a maverick ans bullheaded Irish officer assigned to intelligence who has been brought to Camp McKenzie to 'advise' how best to reinstate order and compliance when the POW's actions prove too much for the ineffectual commandant, Major Perry played by Ian Hendry. Both Schlueter and Connor are arrogant, hubristic tough guys who, despite an outwardly cordial and respectful relationship, each emphatically and secretly believe they will best the other. As such, The McKenzie Break offers us no heroes to root for, just anti-heroes to observe - making it an interesting character study. As Connor, Keith manages to depict the bullish, insolent nature of the man whilst maintaining a level of charm. Unfortunately he has less of an assured grasp on his 'Oirish' accent which wanders across the Atlantic and back during any given sentence. Helmut Griem matches him perfectly, possessing considerable screen presence which makes his actions, however controversial and damning, deeply watchable.

Directed by Lamont Johnson, The McKenzie Break boasts some great location shooting (Ireland standing in for the Scottish Highlands) and a level of intelligent competence that makes it an absorbing watch, even if it does leave the viewer in the strange position of being unsure who, if anyone, to actually root for. It's a refreshing and distinctive film that impresses on both characterisation and ultimately in excitement and tension in the final reel as the escape plan springs into action and the film becomes concerned with the battle of wits between the hunter (Connor) and the hunted (Schlueter and his fellow escapee submariners) Worth a watch.

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