Classic Flix Review: The Purple Plain (1954)

Quite early on in The Purple Plain, I realized the main character was going to be a different Gregory Peck role than any other I had seen. Pilot Bill Forrester (Peck), a Canadian serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, is suffering from suicidal tendencies and what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder (you’ll see why in a couple of seamlessly done flashbacks). He’s rude and reckless, having spent his RAF career trying to get killed. “You’d think that would be easy in a war,” he says, “but I just keep getting medals instead.” Despite being considered “a loony” by the rest of the squadron, he’s been promoted to squadron leader. They are stationed in Burma, fighting the Japanese, and the squadron physician Dr. Harris (Bernard Lee, familiar to millions as M in the James Bond films) has been ordered to gauge Forrester’s sanity and suitability for continued duty. But instead of conducting a physical or psychological exam, Harris takes Forrester to the home of an English missionary, Miss McNab (Brenda Banzie), where he meets Anna (Win Min Than), a quiet, beautiful Burmese girl.

It’s pretty much a given that if you watch movies, particularly classic movies, you either believe in love at nearly first sight or you are able to suspend whatever disbelief you may have. In this case, Peck and Than make it plausible that Anna would be calming to Forrester’s troubled soul, and vice versa. Anna also suffers from PTSD, as she, like many of the Burmese in the story, is a refugee from the Japanese destruction of Rangoon [per Wiki].

Forrester now has something, someone, to live for, and rather quickly, he begins to return to what was apparently his former, more genial, self. If Plain were a different kind of movie, it would just stop there. But Forrester and his new navigator Carrington (Lyndon Brook) are sent on what’s supposed to be a routine flight, with another RAF man, Blore (Maurice Denham), as a passenger. One of their plane’s engines begins to leak oil and bursts into flame; they crash land in the Japanese-controlled wilderness, with barely any water and limited everything else. Carrington is horribly burnt and can’t walk, and Forrester and Blore are at odds and can’t agree on how to survive — should they stay with the wreckage and hope to be rescued, or save themselves by walking toward the river miles away?

In short, after spending the first half of the film chasing death, Forrester now wants to live, only to find himself in the perfect position to die.

I am always reluctant to use biography to explain someone’s excellence (or lack thereof) in a particular role, because there’s no way to really know what was going on in their minds. But Peck was going through a tough divorce at the time this film was made and I wonder if he wasn’t able to use that experience. However he did it, he makes Forrester’s angst and recovery very real. When he first sees Anna, he slowly begins to relax. By the time the plane has crashed, his entire bearing has  changed and he is no longer troubled, even when angry.

Director Robert Parrish uses visual motifs, subjective camera, and triangle setups to subtly suggest mood, imply alliances between characters, and foreshadow events. Parrish and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth particularly distinguish themselves when depicting the oppressive heat and light, and the gorgeous scenery of Burma (actually Sri Lanka). (The saturation of the color reminds me of another film set in South Asia, Black Narcissus, though that film incredibly was not shot on location.) There’s one pan shot about an hour in that shows both the beauty of the surroundings and the enormity of what the men are up against if they want to survive. The score serves to build the tension and hint at Forrester’s mood. There’s big Hans-Zimmer-style staccato horns in the wilderness and a serene theme reinforcing the stability that Anna represents.

The film invites contemplation on a few themes. A scene with a child and a lizard is a comment on the savage side of human nature that is made explicit elsewhere in the film. “To kill or not to kill…. Strange how fascinating death can be, isn’t it?” Forrester says. “The purple plain” is apparently a British nickname for Burma, but given the setting of the film around Easter, I also think it has religious significance as well. There is certainly some exploration of the role of faith — “God will provide” vs. “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

Check out this amusing scene of the dinner scene with miss McNab and singing the Easter hym:

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At any rate, none of the themes are heavy-handed. One person who watches may think the film is saying that God works in mysterious ways (that would be me); another may see it as a comment on the transitory nature of life; and yet another sees an anti-war statement; and the fact that all are correct, along with its excellent overall quality and really perfect ending, indicates to me that The Purple Plain, though under-appreciated, deserves a place in the “timeless classic” category.

– review by Paula G.


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