Cast & Crew
Win Min Than
Brenda De Banzie
In 1945 in Burma, Royal Air Force flight commander Forrester struggles continually with nightmares about being trapped on the ground during an air raid bombing. Although Forrester frequently takes brazen chances during his missions, they are nevertheless always successful. Despite numerous commendations for bravery, Forrester remains a loner with a reputation among the other pilots and mechanics as being dangerously unstable. When his navigator is wounded when Forrester disobeys orders and destroys an enemy gun battery, his commanding officer, Aldridge, decides to transfer him. Dr. Harris, who is puzzled by but also fascinated with the edgy Forrester, reminds Aldridge that the Canadian Forrester volunteered long ago during the Battle of Britain and has proved himself over the years a capable pilot. Aldridge agrees to refrain from taking action until Harris can speak with Forrester. Meanwhile in his tent, Forrester finds himself distracted and aggravated by his fastidious tent-mate, Blore, who is writing his daily letter home. When Blore chastises Forrester for his recklessness, suggesting that Forrester would behave more responsibly if he had a wife and family, Forrester recalls that at the beginning of the war, his wife was killed on their wedding night during an air raid attack on London. Later that afternoon, Harris invites Forrester to visit a nearby Burmese Christian mission where the doctor introduces him to Dorothy and her younger sister Anna. The beautiful but reserved Anna has left Rangoon University to help her sister run a school for the local children and provide medical assistance to the military and civilian war victims. While Harris and Dorothy visit the dispensary, Forrester, attracted by Anna's sensitive demeanor, agrees to accompany her into the village to examine Burma's famed precious stones. Returning to camp, Forrester is annoyed to learn that the top two mechanics have been given their discharge papers, hindering his ability to make the next mission. Blore then introduces Forrester to new navigator, Carrington, who will share their tent. That evening, Harris invites Forrester to return to the mission to dine and, although reluctant, Forrester consents. Pleased to see Anna again, Forrester then meets the head of the mission, Scottish native Miss McNab and the minister, Mr. Phang. Dinner is interrupted when Japanese planes drops bombs in attempt to damage the military airstrip. The nearby village is nearly destroyed in the attack, although the mission house suffers only minor damage. Hurrying to safety with Anna, Forrester panics when it appears Anna has been struck by a falling tree, but she is unhurt. Later while helping the wounded, Anna is caught up in a panicked rush by the villagers, and Forrester rescues her. The next day, Forrester returns to the mission where Anna asks to speak with him privately and presents him with a ruby, which he hesitatingly accepts. Forrester then tells Anna about his wife's death and confesses that since then, he has lived recklessly, hoping to die. Forrester admits that since meeting Anna he wants to live and now considers Burma his home. At camp, Aldridge assigns Forrester and Carrington to try out a new plane by flying Blore to his new base, a few hours away. During the flight, over Japanese-held mountainous territory, the starboard engine abruptly begins leaking oil, then bursts into flames. Unable to extinguish the fire, Forrester sends out a distress call and crash-lands the craft in a dry river bed. Hurrying out of the burning plane, Carrington slides down the fuselage, receiving severe leg burns from the overheated oil. Forrester and Blore exit unharmed and pull Carrington to safety before the airplane explodes. After providing Carrington with morphine and as much medical help as their limited supplies allow, Forrester estimates that the main river is thirty miles away and as soon as the night brings cooler temperatures, they must make their way there. Blore protests, insisting that the distress call will prompt an immediate rescue mission, but Forrester reminds him they are deep within enemy territory. Despite Blore's protests, Forrester constructs a stretcher for Carrington and at nightfall, the men set off over treacherous terrain toward the jungle. Stumbling over the uneven ground, Blore chastises Forrester who strings together a cloth rope to aid in lowering Carrington's stretcher down the steep hills. After Blore accidentally slides down a precipice and breaks his collarbone, he insists their efforts are futile and they should give up and shoot themselves. Meanwhile, back at camp, search planes report no sign of the missing craft and Aldridge confides in Harris that he cannot risk sending a foot patrol so far into enemy territory. Harris sadly goes to the mission to report Forrester's disappearance. Ascertaining that Forrester took no unusual risks in accepting the assignment, Anna tells Harris the pilot may yet return. The next day, Forrester tells Blore that one of them must make an attempt to reach the river while the other remains with Carrington. Blore criticizes Forrester for taking them from the crash site and accuses him of envying him his family, but Forrester ignores Blore's condemnation and goes to sleep. When he awakens later, Forrester finds Blore missing and tells Carrington he believes that Blore has headed back to the plane and sets off to retrieve him. Laboring in the heat with most of his water ration gone, Blore grows more desperate, suspecting that he may be lost. After falling and losing the remaining water, Blore shoots himself. The shot attracts Forrester who finds Blore's body and sadly takes his identity tags, wallet and the pistol before returning to Carrington. At nightfall, Forrester tells Carrington they must get to the river and despite the navigator's protests, picks him up and carries him. Hours later, Forrester tries to rest and inadvertently drops Carrington. Realizing he cannot proceed with his navigator, Forrester leaves Carrington the remaining water and the pistol and vows to return with help. After walking throughout the night and following day in bitter heat, Forrester reaches the river and is rescued by Burmese bearers. At camp, Harris tells the relieved Miss McNab of Forrester and Carrington's rescue. When Forrester and Carrington are flown back to the camp, Harris picks up the pilot, who insists on going to the mission. After greeting Miss McNab, Forrester finds Anna sleeping and lies down to rest beside her.
Win Min Than
Brenda De Banzie
Mye Mye Spencer
Soo Ah Song
Gordon K. Mccallum
Earl St. John
The Purple Plain
In the '50s, new tax laws offered major tax breaks to U.S. citizens who worked outside the country for extended periods. As a result, several Hollywood stars based themselves overseas for a few years, with only brief return visits home as allowed by Internal Revenue. Peck signed a two-picture deal with British producer John Bryan to take advantage of the new laws. They had started their partnership with Man with a Million (1953), an adaptation of Mark Twain's story "The Million Pound Bank Note." Then Paramount's decision to shoot director William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953) made it possible for Peck to continue working outside the country. During filming of that classic, Bryan approached Peck about starring in a 1947 novel by H.E. Bates, best known for such comic romances as Love for Lydia and The Darling Buds of May. Peck accepted the project on condition that it be filmed on location and that his character's Asian love interest be played by an Asian actress.
The former worked mostly to the film's advantage. Although interiors were shot in England's Pinewood Studios, for the jungle scenes, Bryan took his company to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a popular film location off the coast of India. By the time they arrived, the island nation had already enjoyed a healthy dose of Hollywood glamour during the recent filming of Elephant Walk (1954) with Elizabeth Taylor. In 1957, it would provide the locations for another classic World War II tale, The Bridge on the River Kwai. With the script's respectful depiction of military heroism, Bryan got full cooperation from the Royal Air Force, which donated three bombers and some personnel stationed in Singapore. On the down side, however, the rainy season caused several production delays.
Location shooting almost proved dangerous for Peck. He was undergoing a painful separation from his wife, and, although he had fallen in love with a French journalist who would eventually become his second wife, he was deeply disturbed about the breakup of his first marriage. Most nights he couldn't sleep at all, reading or simply staring into the darkness. But one night, director Robert Parrish awoke to the sound of Peck screaming as he raced out of the tent barefoot and headed through the clearing towards the snake-infested jungle. Fearing he was about to lose his leading man, Parrish tackled him, but it took a few minutes for the actor to realize where he was. With Peck's permission, they re-wrote the film's opening to reflect the incident, with Peck's character racing into the night after dreaming about his wife's death in the London Blitz, a scene they captured in just one take. As Parrish would say, "I guess that's because Greg and I had rehearsed it so well."
Casting an Asian actress opposite Peck for The Purple Plain brought some unexpected problems. Two hundred women showed up for the auditions, though many were clearly unsuitable and had only signed up to meet Peck. The production company finally settled on a beautiful young woman named Win Min Than, but she shook her head so much when she spoke that the crew had to construct a special brace for her. She also came with a jealous husband, concerned about losing her to the film's "decadent" Hollywood star. He even ordered his wife to eat garlic before romantic scenes with Peck. Fortunately, the production crew managed to convince Than's husband that Peck and the American crew were completely respectful of the actress and he returned home to let his wife finish the picture in peace; it would prove to be her only movie. When The Purple Plain was ready for release, Than undertook an extensive U.S. publicity tour.
Director Parrish was a former child star and Oscar®-winning film editor (for 1947's Body and Soul) then on the rise in Hollywood. The Purple Plain would be his first important picture after making his debut with a pair of low-budget crime films, Cry Danger and The Mob (both 1951). Despite interesting work on The Purple Plain, the Robert Mitchum Western The Wonderful Country (1959) and the 1965 war film Up from the Beach, he never made the move to A-list director. In an era when Hollywood filmmaking was far from stable, he soon tired of living from job to job, leaving the U.S. to focus on international productions and then taking a nine-year hiatus from filmmaking. His return, the music documentary Mississippi Blues (1983), was met with indifferent reviews, despite the fact that his co-director was the then-fashionable Bertrand Tavernier. It would be his last film.
The most prominent success to come out of The Purple Plain was Geoffrey Unsworth, whose cinematography matched Peck's passionate emotions with a rich color palette. Unsworth had been doing outstanding work lensing British films since 1943, winning special notice for his work on the first version of The Blue Lagoon (1949), starring Jean Simmons. He would later film A Night to Remember (1958), often called the best film ever made about the sinking of the Titanic; Becket (1964), for which Bryan won an Oscar® for Art Direction; and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He would win Oscars® for Cabaret (1972) and Tess (1979).
The Purple Plain opened to solid reviews, but the unconventional war story (the enemy is never even seen) and lack of other major stars may have kept audiences away at a time when films were suffering at the box office thanks to competition from the still-new medium of television. Variety listed it as the 95th highest-grossing film of the year, but with only $1.3 million in rentals, it failed to make back its $2 million budget. French critics, however, have hailed Parrish as a major talent often overlooked and underrated in his native country, and honored him with a retrospective in 1963.
Producer: John Bryan
Director: Robert Parrish
Screenplay: Eric Ambler
Based on the novel by H.E. Bates
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Art Direction: Jack Maxsted
Music: John Veale
Principal Cast: Gregory Peck (Forrester), Win Min Than (Anna), Bernard Lee (Dr. Harris), Maurice Denham (Blore), Ram Gopal (Mr. Phang), Brenda De Banzie (Miss McNab), Lyndon Brook (Carrington).
by Frank Miller
Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall
The Purple Plain
The Purple Plain on DVD
It's the tale of a Canadian fighter pilot named Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck) assigned to an RAF company in Burma near the end of WWII. Forrester is mentally unstable. His wife died in the London blitz, and devastated by the loss, he has lost his will to live. He suffers nightmares flashing back to the blitz and seems to have gone "round the bend," as other characters like to put it. He cares not a whit about being sent on dangerous missions and in fact behaves recklessly, taking chances in the air in vain attempts to be killed. "I wanted to die, but I got medals instead," he says. Eventually, a beautiful young Burmese woman, Anna (Win Min Than), seems able to understand his tortured psyche, and in a tender yet restrained love scene Forrester finds himself able at last to open up to someone. Then he is sent on a mission with two men and is forced to crash-land in the middle of the Japanese-occupied wilderness. With one man wounded and the other acting argumentative, Forrester's struggle is now to escape the jungle alive and get back to Anna.
The Purple Plain, then, is a story of survival in a very large sense of the term, for underlying Forrester's attempt to survive his predicament is his newly-found desire to survive, period. This is an inherently moving aspect of Eric Ambler's script (based on a novel by former RAF pilot H.E. Bates), but Robert Parrish's direction makes it even more powerful. He shows visually how Forrester's disturbed emotional state is gradually healed by both Anna and the sense of Buddhist spirituality all around him. The landscape, the Buddhist culture, and the love of a woman all act as catalysts for Peck's wounded soul to come out of its hard shell. Peck plays it beautifully. It's hard to think of another actor who could have pulled off such an inner performance. Peck has many shots in which he simply stares into space, thinking, feeling or reacting, yet we are always aware of what those thoughts and feelings must be. It helps, of course, that Peck automatically brings to the screen a star persona of nobility and sensitivity, but this is still an incredibly difficult kind of performance to make so seamless and believable.
Gregory Peck made The Purple Plain while he was abroad shooting a handful of movies in the early 1950s. He was working out of the country because Congress had recently passed a law allowing Americans who worked overseas for 17 out of 18 months to be exempt from income tax over the period. The law was designed to encourage oil workers to work in remote locations, but Hollywood quickly took advantage of it. Many top stars went to Europe to shoot movies. Peck made Roman Holiday (1953), The Million Pound Note (1953) and The Purple Plain, among others.
When Parrish sent him the script, Peck liked it immediately and said he would do it on two conditions: that the film be shot in Southeast Asia and that the Burmese girl be played by an actual Burmese actress. Parrish found a good location in Burma, but the political instability there made insurers unwilling to cover Gregory Peck. Eventually Parrish discovered a Burmese colony in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) which did the trick. David Lean would later shoot The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in the same location.
To find the Burmese actress, Parrish and his producer went to Rangoon and tested dozens of hopefuls before finding the radiantly beautiful Win Min Than, whose name in English means "Bright a Million Times." They flew her to London for further screen tests, during which Parrish noticed that she had a habit of shaking her head from side to side when speaking. As she was unable to keep her head still, for close-ups Parrish resorted to strapping a special brace to the back of her neck. It was outfitted with two sharp nails that would touch her head behind her ears unless she held still. It worked, and ironically one reviewer even commented on Than's "talent of stillness."
Parrish later recounted in his memoir how he came up with the film's dramatic opening sequence in which Peck suffers from a nightmare. Parrish and Peck were sharing a tent on location, and one night, very late, Parrish awoke to the sound of Peck screaming. Peck went running out of the tent (which collapsed in his wake) and toward the snake-laden jungle. Parrish gave chase and tackled him. "Some kind of nightmare, I guess," explained Peck sheepishly. The next morning, Parrish realized that this would make a good opening for the movie, and it certainly did. It's beautifully economical because it establishes at once Forrester's mental state, his background, and his current narrative situation - and all through images, not words. The film's final sequence is even more economical and touching, and was later echoed by Martin Scorsese in the last shot of his Bringing Out the Dead (1999).
MGM offers zero frills with this disc aside from some language and subtitle options. However, the print is gorgeous, with rich muted Technicolor and barely any scratches throughout.
Note of interest: The broad emotional elements of The Purple Plain bear a striking resemblance to John Boorman's sorely underrated (and unavailable on DVD) Beyond Rangoon (1995), in which Patricia Arquette plays a woman who has lost her family and her will to live -- until she finds herself fighting to escape the jungle in military-controlled 1980s Burma.
For more information about The Purple Plain, visit MGM Home Entertainment. To order The Purple Plain, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
The Purple Plain on DVD
The following written acknowledgment appears in the opening credits: "The Producers of this film gratefully acknowledge the co-operation received from the Air Ministry and members of the Royal Air Force." According to a March 1954 New York Times article, The Purple Plain was filmed on location near Sigiriya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which had earlier served as a location for several other motion pictures. Interiors were shot in London. The Royal Air Force was credited in the article for donating three Mosquito bombers as well as R.A.F. personnel from nearby Singapore.
The New York Times article indicates that production was delayed by tropical rains for several weeks, which necessitated a relocation from the original filming site. According to the article, the Mosquito bomber plane used for the crash scene was shipped to the location from London, and as it had been stripped of its engines, cost the production only thirty-five dollars. The article also noted that Lyndon Brook, who played "Carrington," was the son of actor Clive Brook. Lyndon Brook appeared in a bit role in a 1942 film under the name Clive Brook, Jr.
Released in United States Spring March 1955
Released in United States Spring March 1955