The Wooden Horse (1950)

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Released 24-May-2004

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category War None
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1950
Running Time 98:00
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Jack Lee
Studio
Distributor

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Leo Genn
David Tomlinson
Anthony Steel
David Greene
Peter Burton
Patrick Waddington
Michael Goodliffe
Anthony Dawson
Bryan Forbes
Dan Cunningham
Peter Finch
Philip Dale
Russell Waters
Case ?
RPI $14.95 Music Clifton Parker


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Screen, not known whether Pan & Scan or Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    I'm a big fan of British war films that were made either during WWII or in the decades that followed. This is especially true if they're factual, and even more so if they involve escape stories. So as you can imagine, along with Colditz Story, this is one of my favourite movies from the era. I find the ingenuity of the men (who were surviving on a starvation diet, and struggling against terminal boredom) to be absolutely amazing, and although it's reported that only around 25% of POWs in these officer camps were actively trying to escape, it still makes me wonder if today's generation would be anywhere near as resourceful as they were. Anyway, I mention this to let you know that I come to this review with a somewhat biased outlook.

    Based on the true story told in Eric Williams' book The Tunnel Escape (and the term "Based on a true story" meant far more in 1950 than it does in today's glut of "Based-on-a-true-story" efforts coming out of Hollywood), The Wooden Horse tells of one of the many escape attempts from Stalag Luft III during WWII. Stalag Luft III was a huge camp run by the Luftwaffe solely for the incarceration of captured Allied aircrew, which actually covered 59 acres, and had 5 miles of perimeter fencing around it. Long before the so-called "Great Escape" occurred from the very same camp, two men, Peter (Leo Genn) and John (Anthony Steel) decide they are going to tunnel out together. However they must overcome the problem that faces all the tunnel diggers in the camp - that being the compound huts are located so far from the fence line, making tunnelling a huge and time-consuming job. The longer a tunnel takes to dig, the more chance there is that it will be discovered by the Germans before it's finished and put to use. How can they start the tunnel from closer to the barbed wire though?

    In what turned out to be a stroke of genius, John has the idea of creating a wooden vaulting horse that can be placed in plain sight of the guards every day (right up close to the perimeter), with one of them inside digging a tunnel. At the end of each "exercise" session, the entrance to the tunnel is covered up, and the digger with his collection of dirt is carried back to the huts, inside the wooden horse. The sheer audacity of the idea is probably one of the main reasons they got away with it, since none of the Germans had any idea what was going on right under their very noses.

    The two end up recruiting a third member for the group, Phil (David Tomlinson), who runs things from above ground when the horse is being used, and it's the three of them who make the final escape attempt.

    The first half of the film involves the tunnel digging and escape from the camp, while the second half covers Peter and John's attempt to get to neutral Sweden.

    This movie is a far cry from today's action blockbusters, since it actually relies on good story-telling, genuine characters you can relate to, and understated acting. These men aren't portrayed as superheroes who cockily defy the enemy - they are simply normal people who behave extraordinarily when the circumstances require, and overcome their fears to do their duty. You see them arguing amongst each another, you see the tension amongst the men when living in close quarters in a mind-numbingly boring prison camp, you see them weary and depressed, you see the emotion of a man who has to kill an enemy soldier face-to-face for the first time, and you even see spiteful, selfish behaviour. These are real people who draw you into their story, and you can almost feel the fear whenever they come near a German soldier once outside the camp. How these men could travel long distances, acting normally, and not give themselves away at every turn (not to mention the language barrier for the non-German speaking ones), is beyond me.

    I watched this DVD with a flatmate who I didn't think would hang around till the end, but at its conclusion he commented on what a good story it was, which to me is exactly what these sorts of films are about - it's a good story, and the fact that it's true makes it a better story. I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in such movies, and who has the patience to go for 90 minutes without hearing a loud explosion.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    I wasn't expecting much from this transfer, considering its age, as well as the fact that it isn't a huge title. While not being anything to rave about, it actually isn't quite as bad as I'd imagined though.

    Produced in 1950 before the world of widescreen took over, this movie was originally displayed in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This transfer is presented in a ratio of 1.33:1, which is very close to the original. It is not 16x9 enhanced of course.

    Sharpness is not especially good, but considering the age of the source couldn't be expected to be much better. There are some scenes that look softer than others, but when you look at the lighting in these scenes it suggests that they were meant to be softer and the issue is inherent in the source. There is a surprising lack of grain for such an old movie. Contrast is acceptable, but shadow detail is often lacking, such as the left side of the screen around the 33:21 mark.

    This feature is black and white, so colour obviously isn't much of an issue. However the blacks at times are lacking in depth, giving a slightly washed-out look throughout much of the film.

    Film to video artefacts are limited to the occasional tiny bit of aliasing, but it's barely noticeable. There are film artefacts throughout the entire runtime, as you'd probably expect, but for the most part they are small and benign. There are a few exceptions of major film blemishes, such as the monster at 20:20.

    There are no subtitles present, and the disc is single layered - hence no layer change either.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one track on this DVD; English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s).

    Dialogue is a bit of a problem on this disc. Even despite the clipped, well-spoken English accents, I had great trouble hearing all the dialogue clearly. Volume changes occur frequently, requiring you to constantly make adjustments in order to either hear what's being said or, at the other extreme, not get blasted out of your chair. Fortunately there are no issues with lip sync, since that would have made it even harder.

    Music, by Clifton Parker, is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and is suitably dramatic and theatrical. It does seem a little overdramatic at times, as is often the case with movies from this era, but all-in-all it adds nicely to the atmosphere.

    Neither your surrounds nor your subwoofer will have anything to do while watching this disc. Not surprising considering its mono origins.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Nothing to see here.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    As best as I could tell, there is no Region 1 version of this disc available at the time of writing. More surprising is the fact that I couldn't find a Region 2 version either.

Summary

    A classic true story, told in the manner of classic British understatement. Not a fast-paced action vehicle for the Nintendo generation, but very satisfying for those who like a good story.

    Video is acceptable, especially considering the age of the source, and the budget nature of the DVD.

    Audio, sadly, leaves a bit to be desired. Dialogue that is often hard to make out, volume changes and occasional pops/dropouts don't serve to make this an aural pleasure.

    No extras are present.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© David L (Only my Mum would have any interest in my bio)
Friday, July 02, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDOmni 3600, using RGB output
DisplaySony 1252QM CRT Projector, 250cm custom built 16x9 matte screen. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL).
AmplificationOnkyo TX-DS797- THX Select
SpeakersAccusound ES-55 Speaker set, Welling WS12 Subwoofer

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