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May 04, 2015

The McKenzie Break

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Lamont Johnson - 1970
KL Classics BD Region A

I still have some memory of when The McKenzie Break played in New York City in 1970. I'm pretty sure that United Artists was hoping the film would make some money, but this was basically a modest production intended to keep product flowing from the studio to the theaters. Unexpectedly, some film critics took notice. It was enough to get me to hop on a subway to a neighborhood theater in Manhattan's Upper West Side, away from my usual screenings in Greenwich Village. What I also recall was that, while not up their with The Great Escape, The McKenzie Break was a good, solid film.

For any younger readers here, there was a time when movies that took place during World War II were a viable genre. Even during the time of the Vietnam war, and even without pontificating on the evils of war, such as Paths of Glory. These were essentially "adventure films". One might identify those movies about soldiers escaping from P.O.W. camps as a sub-genre. These films routinely were about Allied soldiers escaping from German camps, such as the previously mentioned The Great Escape, The Colditz Story and The Wooden Horse come to mind. The only previous English language film I'm aware of with any Germans escaping an Allied camp is Roy Ward Baker's The One that Got Away, from 1957. Baker's film was forgotten when Johnson's film was released, but part of the interest in this film was that it was about German soldiers escaping from a camp in Scotland.

The prisoners are all officers, under the command of Captain Schlueter. Not only does Schlueter and his men not cooperate with their captors, a frustrated lot of British soldiers, but he is able to intimated them to the point where he has claimed ownership of the grounds inside the barb wire fence. A tunnel is being dug with an attempted escape imminent. The Irish Captain Jack Connor is enlisted by intelligence to try and find out why there is an extreme discipline problem at Camp McKenzie. It takes someone who disregards some of the rules of military protocol to take on Schlueter.

With a career primarily in episodic television, as well as making a name for himself with the then novel concept of movies made for television, Lamont Johnson was probably initially hired for his economical filming methods. One scene that stands out is early in the film. Refusing to leave their respective barracks, the German soldiers signal each other when the British soldiers are about to enter the inner part of the camp. Johnson uses a zoom lens to catch the hand signals between buildings, zooming forwards or backwards, as required by the shot, through the windows.

The other genre flip is rooting for the escape plan to fail. As Schlueter, Helmut Griem's Teutonic good looks play against his basic ruthlessness, calling out a Luftwaffe pilot as "queer" for refusing to support his rebellion, and his disregard shown later towards the other prisoners. It seems fitting that like the director, the film's star, Brian Keith, would be an actor known for traversing between television and movies. Keith's physical build consistently projected the idea of solidity. Mostly what he does here is crack wise with an Irish accent. And that's really all he needs to do.

Lamont Johnson probably is better remembered for his television movies, controversial at the time, That Certain Summer and The Execution of Private Slovik. His handful of theatrical films are an inconsistent bunch, though not without interest, with the other critical high point being The Last American Hero, a film embraced by Pauline Kael.

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Posted by peter at May 4, 2015 12:59 PM