Pola Negri hits it out of the park in this late silent war drama. She is a French farmer whose land is converted into a POW camp during WWI. Her hatred of Germans is slowly melted away by her discovery of common humanity… and by Clive Brook, a handsome prisoner. First class story of love and tolerance.
This is a Double Feature review. I will also be covering the 1954 Gregory Peck film, The Purple Plain. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Hello, we’re turning your home into a prison camp…
By the time 1927 rolled around, Hollywood was taking a good long look inward. There had been a flurry of propaganda films before and during World War One that portrayed the enemy nations in general, and Germany in particular, as sick sick sick. Unsurprisingly, Erich von Stroheim wins the prize for most warped portrayal. (Without going into too much detail, the formula is Erich + baby + upper floor window. You can read my review here, if you must.)
Of course, these films had an ulterior motive. Making propaganda films was a clever way of including a massive dose of sex and violence in mainstream movies without being censored.
Now, the war had been over for almost a decade and the film community was in the mood for a bit of introspection. Maybe the average German soldier during the Great War was not a rapacious beast. Maybe some of them were just normal guys who were drafted. Imagine that!
And, of course, there was that little fact that German talent had been flooding into Hollywood, enriching motion pictures immeasurably. It’s no wonder that the American film industry was willing to be more sympathetic to German characters in films. Barbed Wire was part of a new wave of war pictures, in which the conflict mainly used as a backdrop for character development and an examination of common humanity.
25,000 men and one woman.
Mona Moreau (Pola Negri) is a Frenchwoman who lives on a farm with her brother, Andre (Einar Hanson) and their elderly father (Claude Gillingwater). Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the announcement of war. France has called on its young men to mobilize and fight the Germans. Andre must go off to war, leaving his father and sister to tend the farm. Mona wishes that she too could take up arms against the enemy. Her father, a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, has a more nuanced view. He admonishes Mona for her hardness.
Mona does face the Germans, just not in the way she expected. The Moreau farm has been chosen as the location of a prisoner of war camp. Mona is going to have Germans living on her land. She is to feed them and have them work on her farm. These are government orders and Mona has no say in the matter. Stinks to be her.
Soon the farm is covered in barbed wire and the Germans come flooding in, their coat backs stamped with a large PG (Prisonnier du Guerre). Mona and her fellow villagers regard the prisoners as little better than animals. Reality is a bit different. Among the prisoners are Oscar (Clive Brook) and Hans (Clyde Cook). Before the war, Oscar was a manager at a large firm and Hans was a successful acrobat and comedian. The pair have become friends. Because in the world of silent film, if you are an attractive main character, you need to find a goofy best friend posthaste. The story cannot continue until you do.
The main problem facing the German prisoners is boredom. Therefore, the few farm jobs available are highly sought-after. Hans gets one because of his energetic leaping and Oscar is placed near the top of the waiting list due to his good behavior.
Mona is not afraid of the Germans– workers are always accompanied by guards– but she has no intention of being nice to them either. Poor Hans has never met a woman who does not laugh at his antics. He is crushed, poor little man, and makes it his mission to get a smile out of her. This is not a romantic interest; it is a matter of professional pride. Hans is not the only German to get a blast of frigid air. Mona is equally cold to one of the workers who has a bad cough. And we movie fans all know what a cough means in the world of motion pictures.
The kid with the cough passes away in the night and Oscar has taken his place. Now if I had someone who looked like Clive Brook show up to work on my farm, I would definitely take notice. Mona is clearly made of sterner stuff than me. She barely acknowledges Oscar until he surprises her by speaking excellent French. Mona decides that he must have been a spy. Oscar isn’t angry. He isn’t indignant. He is hurt. He simply denies her accusation and leaves. Mona isn’t sure how to react. What can you do if the Hun refuses to fight?
Mona has more problems than the POW camp. Her neighbor Pierre Corlet (Gustav von Seyffertitz, who is the only German in the main cast) is proposing to her once again. Corlet was not healthy enough to join the army but he is plenty healthy to marry Mona. Sorry, pal. Ain’t gonna happen.
Meanwhile, the French and German forces have met on the field of battle. It is not glorious or romantic. It is a hellish place strewn with barbed wire and rocked with explosions. The Western Front was a nightmare with tens of thousand of young men dying and hundreds of thousands wounded in the larger individual battles. You can pinpoint the casualties with BBC’s interactive map.
Barbed Wire is not really about tactics and strategy so the war scenes are a series of vignettes showing the smoke, wire, shells and explosions. The film concerns itself with creating atmosphere and showing the aftermath of a skirmish. In the midst of the war, a wounded Andre manages to befriend a German soldier. Back at the farm, Mona and her father receive a letter saying that Andre was killed in action. Mona’s father collapses and begins to curse the Germans.
With her father ill, Mona is left to tend the farm alone. She and Oscar have a breakthrough when she agrees to place a wreath on the dead kid’s grave. Colonel Duval (Charles Lane), who is charge of the prisoners, sees her. He says that he appreciates what she is doing but she must be careful. The villagers may not understand her act of sympathy.
I am going to break in here and point out that the enmity between France and Germany did not start with the aforementioned Franco-Prussian War. Julius Caesar commented on the rivalry between the Gauls (pre-French) and Germans. More recently, France was smarting from the loss of the Alsace and Lorraine regions. Calls to retake this land were used in a lot of anti-German rhetoric. My point in bringing this out is that the dislike of the Germans had likely been a lifelong attitude for the local villagers (as opposed to wartime hysteria) and the context shows what a risk she took in helping Oscar.
At this point, Oscar and Mona, if not friends, are at least on cordial terms. There are even a few moments of inadvertent hand holding (oooooo!) when they work together getting the grain harvest into storage. Another breakthrough comes when he saves her from some unwelcome advances from a French officer. Yup, these two definitely have something going on.
Mona’s sympathy for the Germans and affection for Oscar are becoming more and more obvious to the general public. In one scene of very fine acting, Pola Negri is being insulted by her neighbors after helping Oscar. She breaks through the crowd only to be faced with the German prisoners cheering her from behind the barbed wire. Mona begins to run but she cannot escape the jeers behind her and the applause in front of her. It’s a beautiful illustration of her inner conflict.
Can Mona and Oscar be together? Or will their love be one more casualty of a senseless war?
Pola in Hollywood
Barbed Wire has quickly becomes one of my favorite silent films. It achieves that rare blend of realism and romance that endeared me to the genre in the first place.
It also features a courtship for grown-ups. Love stories in movies too often seem to be written by and for 13-year old girls. Such passion! Such grand gestures! Mona and Oscar are adults and they act like it. Their mutual respect and gentle affection are a welcome break from the sheiks, flappers and swashbucklers. Not that those bad, per se, but one does needs a break. (For another grown-up romance, try Miss Lulu Bett. No war but quite excellent.)
Barbed Wire was originally meant to be directed by Mauritz Stiller but he was fired by Paramount partway through filming and replaced by Rowland V. Lee, who also has screenplay credit. Lee is best remembered today for directing the horror film Son of Frankenstein and the action film Captain Kidd.
While Stiller would have arguably made a more beautiful film if he had been allowed to finish, Barbed Wire is still a stunner: solemn lighting, a reasonably nimble camera and just the right amount of grit. Plus, considering how disappointed I was in the other Negri-Stiller collaboration, Hotel Imperial, maybe it is not such a loss after all.
The film also has enough symbolism and subtext to create a complicated fabric. Mona’s window is used to illustrate her worldview. When the German prisoners first arrive at her farm, she looks out the window and feels only hatred. Later, when Oscar has risked his life to save hers, she looks out the window confused, unsure how she should feel. And finally, when she hears the Germans singing hymns she looks out her window and rediscovers her own humanity by recognizing theirs. In many ways, the viewpoint of Mona reflects the viewpoint of the movie industry toward the German people.
Both Negri and Brook are marvelous in their roles. Pola Negri is most often described as an “earthy” actress. This quality serves her well in Barbed Wire. Other leading ladies of the era (like Gloria Swanson, Janet Gaynor, and Lillian Gish) were wonderful actresses but I don’t think they could have played this part as well. Pola loses herself in the part. She milks cows, hauls sacks of grain, sexes calves and churns butter without squeamishness or artificiality. Earthy, indeed! Plus, Negri had an unappreciated talent for melting into ensemble casts without overshadowing her costars.
1927 was a very good year for Clive Brook, who played a reluctant gangster in Josef’s von Sternberg’s Underworld and Clara Bow’s love interest in Hula. The former is probably his most famous silent role. Brilliant though Underworld was, I think I like Brook a little better in Barbed Wire. Oscar is a complete boy scout but he is not dull. There is a lot of pain under that mild exterior. This darker aspect of the character makes the story more realistic than the standard tale of forbidden love. Brook plays it all in an understated manner (was he ever anything else?) and acts mostly with his eyes.
In fact, it seems that Clive Brook and Pola Negri are in active competition to see who can get more teary-eyed close-ups. (I award this round to Pola but Clive put up quite a fight.)
The characters of Oscar and Mona are also outside the norm for a mainstream film of this period. It is Mona who feels hatred, vengeance and cold rage without the usual silent movie feminine softness tempering these emotions. Oscar, on the other hand, is sympathetic, mild and endlessly gracious. These mellow traits would normally be combined with either periodic machismo or frat boy antics (lest the hero be branded a “pink powder puff”) but not in this film.
While the death of Mona’s brother causes her to hate the Germans even more, Oscar seeks comfort from Mona, a Frenchwoman, after his sister is killed by a French attack. Even his defense of Mona when she is physically attacked lacks hatred, he simply wants to make sure that she is safe. Mona, on the other hand, takes pleasure in flaunting her relationship with Oscar in front of the hateful Pierre Corlet. And, finally, it is Oscar who displays vulnerability first, giving way to tears when he seeks out Mona after the death of his sister.
That’s not to say that the gender roles of the period are completely subverted. Oscar acts in the accepted heroic manner when Mona is in danger and he tries his best to protect her from the angry villagers when their romance is made public. I think that Oscar is appealing because he is a gentleman and not in the old paternalistic “let me take care of ya, little lady” sense of the word. He is a gentleman in the manner defined by Webster’s as “an honorable and courteous man.”
Mona, for her part, is smart and capable woman. While the film does have Oscar rescue her, she rescues him just as often. This is no damsel in distress. She starts out as a hate-filled individual but, by the end, her sense of justice overcomes her prejudice and allows her to grow as a character.
The supporting cast is also good, although I think that Gustav von Seyffertitz overdoes his villainy a bit.
On the subject of humor: I am not usually a fan of the Official Comedy Relief but I thought that Australian comic Clyde Cook was hilarious as the effervescent Hans. A real-life comedian/acrobat, Cook’s antic provide just the right amount of laughs for the very serious story. I also enjoyed the running joke of Hans wagering various possessions on the chance that he can get Mona to smile.
Barbed Wire was based on the 1923 novel The Woman of Knockaloe by Hall Caine. (You can read it for free online.) The tale originally was set on the Isle of Man.
(Spoilers a-plenty ahead!)
The movie holds pretty close to the original material. One major change is that in the book, the German prisoners are civilians residing in England. This is not a POW camp but an internment camp, similar to the Japanese internment camps of WWII in America. For the movie, the action was moved to France and the Germans were made just plain POWs, likely to avoid offending an Allied nation.
The main difference between the book and the movie is the ending. In Barbed Wire, Andre returns from the war, blinded but alive. He preaches a sermon on tolerance and peace. The villagers are so touched by him and ashamed at their own behavior that they accept Oscar and Mona’s romance.
The book ends with the lovers frustrated at every turn. No country will have them. So they drown themselves.
The ending of the film is a little pat but it is infinitely preferable to the book. I am not a huge fan of the whole suicide pact ending in general. Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare.
There are two ways you can read the suicide at the end of The Woman of Knockaloe: Either you can view it as the last romantic gesture of a couple determined to be together or you can view it as a giant I-hope-you-are-proud-of-yourselves to the the audience. Neither interpretation is particularly appealing. That’s not to say that suicide cannot ever be handled well in film. It can. It’s just that I feel that in this story the suicide is even more contrived than the happy ending.
I also dislike the tendency in film criticism to always view the tragic ending as the better ending. As I stated in my review of The Wind, the best ending is the one that fits the story. I have no problem with tragedy as long as it really is a tragedy and not just someone trying to prove what an Capital “A” Artiste they are. To me the best tragedies have a sense of inevitability (even if they were unexpected upon the first viewing) and leave the audience contemplative. I do not like tragic endings inserted just to make the audience feel guilty, which is what I felt about the novel’s original ending.
So, is the movie’s ending perfect? No. But it will do.
Barbed Wire was released on DVD by Grapevine Video with a synth score.
Sometimes movies can improve when paired with one another. In this case, we have Barbed Wire, the Pola Negri/Clive Brook wartime romance and The Purple Plain, a 1954 love story set in Burma during WWII starring Gregory Peck. Both films are set during violent conflicts and have their share of tragedies. However, neither film is really about war. They both feature understated but heartfelt romances between people who may have never met otherwise.
The Purple Plain (1954)
Available on DVD and via streaming.
Squadron Leader Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck) is highly decorated bomber pilot serving in Burma. On paper, he is a hero. In person, well, it’s complicated. You see, the reason why Forrester has so many medals is because he does not care whether he lives or dies. Actually, that’s not true. It’s better to say that of the two choice, he slightly prefers death. His bride was killed in an air raid on their wedding day and he hasn’t been the same since.
Dr. Harris (Bernard Lee, better known as the original M in the James Bond films) takes an interest in Forrester and decides the best thing for him is to get out for a bit and see Burma. The doctor takes him to a refugee outpost and there Forrester meets Anna (Win Min Than), a young Burmese missionary. Anna’s gentle spirit touches Forrester and he begins to take an interest in something other than his next flight.
When Forrester is called to duty Anna is worried about him. He promises to come back to her. Yes, we all know where this is going…
Forrester is not a popular choice as far as navigators are concerned. His last one got shot during one of Forrester’s crazier stunts. So, the privilege of flying with him goes to the new guy. Carrington is a wet-behind-the-ears navigator who has barely arrived in Burma. He is played by Lyndon Brook, Clive Brook’s son. (See? There is a method to my madness.)
Forrester and Carrington are scheduled to make a routine flight to transport Blore (Maurice Denham), a proud family man who, like most everyone else, cannot stand Forrester.
Forrester’s unpopularity has one more unintended consequence: the man in charge of maintenance is reassigned and he did not bother to arrange for an oil leak in one of Forrester’s engines to be looked at.
Forrester, Blore and Carrington are flying over Japanese territory when that engine catches fire. Forrester manages to the plane down but Carrington’s legs are badly burnt before they can escape the burning aircraft. No rescue planes can see them under the thick brush and, anyway, they are on Japanese-held land. Forrester has to get the wounded Carrington and the stubborn Blore to safety. And, for the first time in years, Forrester has added motivation to come back alive: Anna is waiting for him.
The first half of the movie is dedicated to Forrester’s growing love for Anna. This was Burmese actress Win Min Than’s only screen appearance; she subsequently retired from the screen to raise a family. Her rawness shows through in a few scenes but she is generally very good. And it is so refreshing to see an Asian woman play an Asian character. Yes, I know Sayonara did the same thing in 1957 but don’t forget we also had Ricardo Monatalban (!) featured as a kabuki actor.
Gregory Peck, in spite of his nice-guy type-casting, is at his best when his characters have just a bit of an edge. Forrester is gruff, brusque and arrogant. He does not care who he upsets because he figures he isn’t going to be alive for much longer anyway. But after he meets Anna he begins to soften. The old gruffness still comes out but he is a changed man.
The second half of the movie focuses on Forrester, Carrington and Blore trying to cross the Burmese plains (actually filmed in Sri Lanka) before their water supply runs out. I always enjoy a good survival yarn and The Purple Plain delivers.
Blore has roomed with gruff, crazy Forrester for a while and it was an unpleasant experience for both of them. Therefore, Blore is unwilling to cooperate with any of Forrester’s plans. Carrington likes Forrester (when he isn’t terrified of him) but he can’t walk and his health is deteriorating rapidly.
So it ends up being a battle of wills between the unimaginative Blore and the risk-taking Forrester with Carrington dragged along. Do they leave the plane or stay? Do they make a run for the river or not? Do they wait for rescue or rely on themselves? And how will they deal with Carrington’s injuries?
Maurice Denham gives a good performance as Blore, who begins to crack under the pressure of the survival situation. He is a good man but an insufferable one. He is always ready to condemn and pontificate as to why his way is really the best. Lyndon Brook, like his father, is an understated actor. Carrington is a very young man who is afraid of dying but is hiding it under his soft-spoken demeanor and military protocol.
Then there is Forrester. He was never particularly charming and now he has little reason to improve his manners. He is trapped with his least favorite person and his poor dying navigator. Blore only knows about survival from what he read in books and his ideas (wait for help to come!) will mean a slow death. Forrester has to plan their escape, convince Blore to go along with it and accomplish it all before they run out of water.
The survival scenes are nicely grimy, especially considering that this movie was made in the 1950s, that bastion of candy-colored escapism (with a few notable exceptions). In the end, though, it is the near-ethereal romance between Forrester and Anna that really anchors the film. Like Oscar and Mona in Barbed Wire, Anna and Forrester are no strangers to suffering. They are intelligent adults who have found a true match under the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Further, these are both war movies that don’t like war and show it as little as possible. The conflict is only used to show its effect on the characters, not to provide thrills and action.
The Purple Plain is not a well-known movie in spite of its famous star. That’s a shame since it is an astute, tasteful war picture. Depending on your taste, it be seen as a war movie, a love story, a survival tale or all three at once. While a box office success in its day, it has not enjoyed the modern popularity of other fifties war movies. Let’s change that.