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March 31, 2016

The Purple Plain


Robert Parrish - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Much of the reputation of The Purple Plain seems to rest on the citation Andrew Sarris wrote in discussing the films of Robert Parrish in The American Cinema. Wrote Sarris in 1968: What burst of Buddhist contemplation was responsible for such a haunting exception to such an exceptionable career?. I've only seen a handful of films by Parrish, enough not to write off Saddle the Wind or the several terrific action set-pieces in The Destructors. And I'm not sure what Sarris means by "Buddhist contemplation" is this context, although the film is very much a Christian allegory.

Fortunately, in that regard, Parrish, working from a screenplay by Eric Ambler, from the novel by H.E. Bates, makes his points plain enough without being heavy-handed. Taking place in Burma near the end of World War II, Gregory Peck plays a fighter pilot who experiences his own return from the dead near Easter time. His wife killed in the London blitz, Peck's suicidal actions in battle are confused with heroism. What initially appears to be what would later be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder is revealed to be something deeper, and hidden from others. Peck falls in love with a young Burmese woman who assists at a village mission, initiating is reconnection with others.

Filmed in what is now known as Sri Lanka, the British pilots in Burma are presented as men out of their element in a different environment. Uniforms are soaked in perspiration. Peck is bronzed and sweaty. Although Peck ably suggests are man haunted by his personal demons, Parrish also frequently films Peck from an upward angle suggestive of a heroic man against the sky. Most of the war in The Purple Plain is the conflict going on in Peck's head. There's only one brief scene of the RAF pilots in battle, and later, the suggestion that Japanese troops are nearby, but off-screen.

Contemporary audiences might scratch their heads regarding the presentation of the relationship between Peck and the Burmese woman, a one time performance by the Australian-Burmese Win Min Than. With the "Hays Code" still in effect, Parrish had to dance around filming the relationship between a Caucasian man and an Asian woman, enough to let the audience know that the two were in love with some indirect dialogue and an embrace. Credit reportedly should be given to Peck for his insistence in casting a part-Burmese actress when "yellow face" was still the norm in English language productions.

Some of the special effects look crude, but are only a brief part of the film. Among the credits to become major names in future films are cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and future director Clive Donner, with his second to last credit as editor.


Posted by peter at March 31, 2016 06:10 PM