Cast & Crew
Near the end of the Korean War, Capt. Web Sloane, who had served as a liaison between the United States Army and Russian Intelligence during World War II, is summoned by his commanding officer, Major O. D. Halle and given his new assignment: to find out how North Korea is treating its American prisoners of war. Web agrees to go undercover in a POW camp and report on conditions, and is instructed to use the code word "pipeline" if he needs to communicate with the Army. Posing as an enlisted man, Web parachutes into enemy territory and slips into a line of exhausted prisoners on their way to a camp. The brutal march continues for days, and most of the men do not survive. Meanwhile, at the camp, commanders Col. Kim Doo Yi and Capt. Lang Hyun Choi greet Russian officers Col. Nikita I. Biroshilov and Lt. Georgi M. Robovnik, who have come from Moscow to act as advisors. Kim complains about the indomitable spirit of his American prisoners, and Biroshilov proposes applying principles of behavior modification to make the men more compliant. The new group of prisoners--whose ranks have shrunk from 718 men to 211--arrive at the camp, and begin a course of "education" in Communist doctrine. One day, prisoner Jesse Treadman, who had attempted to get extra rations, is taken away by guards. Jesse is brought before Biroshilov, who offers him food and appears to befriend the young man by promising to assist his ailing mother in the States. When Jesse returns to his quarters, he informs the other prisoners that he has been made a monitor, and urges them to cooperate with their captors. Cpl. Joseph Robert Stanton is stubborn, however, and when he refuses to write an essay on the decay of capitalism, he is interrogated and beaten by Biroshilov. One night, Merton Tollivar is stricken with appendicitis, and Web and Joseph locate a doctor, Capt. Jack Hodges, who says he must operate within twelve hours. Web tells Joseph he plans to pretend to shift allegiances in order to gain access to the necessary medical supplies. Web calls on Biroshilov and offers to promote Communism in exchange for a bottle of brandy, which he uses to get Jesse drunk. He then instructs Jesse to see the camp doctor for sulfa pills, and while Jesse is arguing with the doctor, Web steals supplies from the operating room. Late that night, Hodges sneaks into the hut and, with the men's assistance, manages to remove Merton's appendix. To honor his agreement with Biroshilov, Web makes a recording describing the improved conditions at the camp. He incorporates the code word into his speech, and when Halle and the other American officers hear the recording, Halle deduces that the North Koreans are trying to improve appearances in case the peace talks work out. Halle notes that the Communists have started a propaganda campaign alleging that the U.S. is using germ warfare, and are forcing American pilots to "confess" to this. From their quarters at the camp, the prisoners witness Air Force Lt. Peter Reilly being tortured into making a false confession. Reilly and other pilots are then forced to read prepared statements about germ warfare for a newsreel. Web also appears in the newsreel, which is shown to the prisoners. Joseph angrily denounces Web and smashes the projector, triggering an uprising among the prisoners. As punishment, the men are forced to lie in shallow graves, for days on end, without food or water. The men reject Biroshilov's offer to free them if they will sign statements swearing they have never witnessed atrocities at the camp. Merton dies, and Biroshilov stages a mock execution, which causes some of the men to break down and sign the statement. Biroshilov takes the remaining men to a hilltop and resumes the torture, and all but Joseph give in. Biroshilov captures the little dog that Joseph had adopted and offers to spare the animal's life if he will sign. Joseph refuses, watching in anguish as guards kill the dog. Joseph is finally returned to the camp, but is a changed man, and one night, while the men are watching a movie, sneaks out and kills Biroshilov. Moscow withdraws Robovnik when Biroshilov's murder is not solved, and Kim vows to find the killer at all costs. Before he can do so, however, Kim receives orders to improve the prisoners' standard of living and send twenty of the men home. Kim orders Web to compile a list of prisoners to be repatriated, stipulating that he and the other "progressives" will be sent to Russia to further serve the Communist cause. The men are assembled, and Joseph's name is on the list of those to be released. To Web's surprise, he is also released, and he learns that Jesse added his name to the list. Web reproaches Jesse for agreeing to go to Russia, but Jesse gives the code word and reveals that he also has been working undercover for the military. As the other men see them off, Web, Joseph and Jesse ride out of the camp.
Lester C. Hoyle
Harry Harvey Jr.
A. Arnold Gillespie
Jack D. Moore
Edwin B. Willis
Capt. Robert H. Wise
Prisoner of War
When Prisoner of War came along, the 42-year-old Ronald Reagan was newly married to actress and future first lady Nancy Davis, and was in a bit of a career slump. Since 1950, he had bounced from one studio to another and had recently resigned as President of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan had been turning down most of the lackluster movies offered him during this period. However, when MGM sent him the screenplay for Prisoner of War, he loved it and signed on to the project right away.
For his screenplay, writer Allen Rivkin drew heavily from heart-wrenching true stories told by returning American POWs. When the Army transport "General Walker" docked in San Francisco carrying the first group of returning American soldiers freed from North Korean POW camps, Rivkin was there and personally interviewed sixty of the men. Harsh treatment, lack of food, freezing weather, poor medical treatment, and brainwashing sessions were just some of the horrors that they had lived to tell about, and many of their stories found their way into Prisoner of War.
With Ronald Reagan attached to the project, Prisoner of War was rushed into production in early 1954 in an effort to cash in on the timeliness of the subject matter. In addition, MGM was trying to beat other similar movies to the theaters, such as The Bamboo Prison (1954). Reagan was paid $30,000 for his work on the film. It was his second and final film for MGM (the first was The Bad Man ).
Prisoner of War was shot in 28 days on a shoestring budget with Andrew Marton directing. Capt. Robert H. Wise served as the technical advisor on the film. Wise had spent one year in a Nazi prison camp during World War II and three years in a North Korean prison camp where he nearly starved to death, dropping 90 pounds during his ordeal. His input lent invaluable veracity to the details of the film.
For Andrew Marton, it was crucial to get the film into theaters before the Panmunjom peace talks ended. "Those peace talks went on and on, but I knew they had to come to an end at some point," said Marton. "Our story took place before the peace talks. I said, 'We are in an area which is almost news. It's got to be timely; it's got to come out before those talks end. It's not so much a question of how perfect the dialogue is or how perfect the character development is; you've just got to bring it out now, when the subject is still hot.'"
Despite its hard-hitting subject matter, Prisoner of War failed to make much of an impression on critics or at the box office. The news at the time was so saturated with stories about returning POWs that the film wound up just missing the mark of timeliness. "The picture should have done better," said Ronald Reagan later in his career. "Every torture scene and incident was based on actual happenings documented in official Army records. Unfortunately, production and release were both rushed, with the idea the picture should come out while the headlines were hot."
"The Ronald Reagan character was sent on this mission," said Andrew Marton, "because we as a nation were trying to find a reason for those so-called 'defectors'-the American G.I.s who went over to the Communist side. They were apparently settling in a Communist country-which nobody could understand-and were broadcasting pro-Communist propaganda. This to me presented a conflict, a dramatic situation, and that's what the picture was about."
Producer: Henry Berman
Director: Andrew Marton
Screenplay: Allen Rivkin
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Jeff Alexander
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Webb Sloane), Steve Forrest (Cpl. Joseph Robert Stanton), Dewey Martin (Jesse Treadman), Oskar Homolka (Col. Nikita Biroshilov), Robert Horton (Francis Aloysius Belney), Paul Stewart (Capt. Jack Hodges).
by Andrea Passafiume
Prisoner of War
Capt. Robert H. Wise, who lost 90 lbs in a North Korean POW camp, served as the film's technical advisor and attested that all the torture scenes in the movie were based on actual incidents.
The working titles of this film were The P.O.W. Story and The Prisoner of War Story. The following statement appears onscreen at the beginning and end of the film: "Such testimony as this seems to teach that the spirit of man can run deep-far beyond the reach of Communist tortures." The statement is attributed to Dr. Charles W. Mayo, United States delegate to the United Nations. November 1953 Hollywood Reporter news items report that Richard Thorpe was originally assigned to direct the film, but was forced to withdraw in order to replace Mervyn LeRoy as director of The Student Prince (see below).
According to studio publicity material and a November 15, 1953 article in New York Times, screenwriter Allen Rivkin was present when the Army transport General Walker arrived in San Francisco with the first group of American servicemen liberated from North Korean prisoner of war camps. Rivkin interviewed sixty of the men and incorporated their stories into his script. He told New York Times that the scene in the film in which "Web Sloane" pretends to side with his captors in order to obtain medical supplies for a fellow prisoner was inspired by a POW's account of a similar experience.
According to news items in Hollywood Citizen-News and Daily Variety, Capt. Robert H. Wise, who served as technical advisor, spent a year in Nazi prison camps during World War II and nearly three years in a North Korean prison camp. According to 1954 news items in Variety and Saturday Review (of Literature), the Department of Defense refused to endorse Prisoner of War, calling the film's depiction of conditions in the POW camp a "distortion." The film's reviews were generally weak, as critics questioned the suitability of prison camp atrocities as subject matter and derided the story's simplistic presentation. "Having decided on using such material in the entertainment category," the Brooklyn Eagle wrote, "why weren't proper steps taken to insure its credibility by having the Red captors portrayed, not as stupidly childish, but as reasonably intelligent?"
An October 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that M-G-M rushed Prisoner of War into production in an effort to beat producer Bryan Foy, who was preparing his own film about American POWs in North Korea. That film, entitled The Bamboo Prison was directed by Lewis Seiler and released by Columbia in January 1955.
Released in United States Spring March 1954
Released in United States Spring March 1954