Anyone who’s a fan of war movies will be familiar with the WWII POW/escape variety. One characteristic of such movies is that they rely (by necessity) far less on action than they do on character. The other aspect of note is that they are almost always told from the perspective of the American or British prisoners. I say almost because there are at least two exceptions that I can think of, The McKenzie Break (1970) being one of them. Having German POWs makes for an interesting approach to making a film since this premise automatically challenges the viewers sympathies. Normally, in any kind of prison movie, it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for those who are locked up – but this film turns everything on its head by portraying the leader of the inmates as an unrepentant, amoral and ruthless Nazi.
McKenzie is a POW camp situated in a desolate, sparsely populated area of Scotland. Its purpose is to hold captured German officers, principally submariners and flyers. However, right from the opening moments, it’s clear that all is not well. There is a war of wills going on between the camp commander, Major Perry (Ian Hendry), and the prisoners’ leader Schleutter (Helmut Griem). It’s suspected that there’s a reason for the organised disobedience, which goes beyond plain contrariness. In an effort to get to the bottom of it all, Intelligence dispatches one Captain Connor (Brian Keith) with a brief to establish the cause of the ongoing trouble. Connor is a soft spoken maverick with a penchant for taking risks, and it’s no surprise that the film soon develops into a duel between him and the charismatic Schleutter. Connor knows full well that Schleutter is planning an escape, he even has a fair idea how it’ll be done, but he hopes to bag bigger game and gambles on giving him enough rope to hang himself. Bar a few action scenes, the film plays out mostly as an espionage/detective story, with Connor doing the hunting and tracking and Schleutter, for the most part, managing to stay one step ahead. It’s also worth pointing out the tension and rivalry within the camp, both on the German and British sides. Generally, POW flicks tend to portray the inmates as a united group of disparate characters banding together for the common good. Obviously there are movies, such as Stalag 17, that feature a rotten apple, but off the top of my head I can’t think of another that presents a house so clearly divided. While there’s a mild abrasiveness and a degree of mistrust between Perry and Connor, it’s nothing compared to the sadistic hatred Schleutter displays towards his fellow prisoners from the Luftwaffe.
Brian Keith was one of those amiable actors who always seemed to make things look very easy. Although he’s getting on a bit, and lays the Oirish accent on a bit thick at times, he still manages to put in a good and believable performance. The best parts of the movie for me were those where Connor and Schleutter faced off and traded blows verbally. There’s an especially good scene that takes place in the hospital in the aftermath of the murder of one of the German prisoners. In a grotesque parody of a wake, the two leads share a whiskey over the body of the dead man while each probes for weak spots in the armour of the other. Helmut Griem had the difficult task of playing a morally repugnant character while at the same time trying to imbue him with enough humanity and charisma to make him believable as someone capable of commanding the respect of all those under him. That he manages to do this and pull off the even neater trick of doing reprehensible things but still retaining a modicum of sympathy from the viewer is a credit to him. The McKenzie Break was directed by Lamont Johnson and it’s his one of his few forays outside of TV work. He handles the material competently but with no great style – the Irish locations, standing in for Scotland, are nicely used in the latter half of the film but the acting and storyline are what carry the film more than visuals.
MGM’s R2 DVD offers a pleasing enough image. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer has no damage to speak of and good detail. The colours are on the subdued side but that’s how they’re supposed to look as far as I can tell. The only extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer, but that’s par for the course for MGM catalogue titles. Overall, The McKenzie Break is a well-made suspenseful war movie that offers a different spin on the traditional POW tale.