It’s 1940 and Czech officer Karel Hasek (Michael Redgrave) has escaped from a German concentration camp. He comes across the body of a dead British soldier, Geoffrey Mitchell, and, in a flash of inspiration worthy of Don Draper, takes Michell’s dog tags and assumes his identity. Hasek manages to fall in with a group of captured British soldiers, aided by his excellent English language skills, and marches with them to a prison camp in Germany. He also speaks fluent German, however, and that plus his general air of foreignness, and lack of understanding of some English idioms, make some of the Brits suspect he is a spy.
Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart might have been a very short film indeed had the men done what they were plotting. Fortunately, Major Ossy Dalrymple (Basil Radford) decides to give Hasek a chance to explain himself; after he does so, the rank-and-file Brits come to accept him as one of them. They even carry out a risky scheme to protect him when it seems that his cover might be blown by a visiting German officer who recognizes him from the concentration camp. Meanwhile, they all spend 4+ years in a not-entirely-terrible prisoner-of-war camp (shot in Marlag Milag Nord, a real German prison camp where screenwriter co-screenwriter Guy Morgan was imprisoned), doing the kind of things that soldiers do in war movies.
In order to keep up the deception, Hasek begins writing to Michell’s widow, Celia (Rachel Kempson, Redgrave’s actual wife), even deliberately injuring his right hand so he will have an excuse to write with his left (taking things a bit method, if you ask me—he could have just *said* he was using his left hand due to an injury). Ironically, the real Mitchell was a louse who deserted his wife and children, while the fake one is eloquent and kind and, well, Michael Redgrave. Not surprisingly, she falls in love with the Redgrave version of her husband, which raises the question about how this will all conclude when the war is over and everyone goes home.
War melodramas offer a reliable set of pleasures, seeking as they do to reassure the audience that, despite terrible suffering endured with noble stoicism, the world is really a benign place and all will soon be set to rights. The Captive Heart hits all the expected beats and is enlivened by expert direction and a reliable cast of actors, including familiar faces like Jack Warner, Mervyn Johns, Ralph Michael, Jimmy Hanley, Guy Middleton, and Derek Bond. Shooting began during World War II, and the film was released shortly after the war’s conclusion, where it proved immensely popular with the British public.
We’re not in the same kind of war today, but some people may be feeling a bit shell-shocked all the same, given the disruptions to normal life caused by the pandemic. While I am in no way saying that COVID-19 is the equivalent of World War II, the truth is that people feel the way they feel, and there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from your troubles by engaging in a little cinematic distraction. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Captive Heart is distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital by Kino Lorber. The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan.