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.


Check out Paula’s Bio and her blog Paula’s Cinema Club



Leave me your thoughts on The Purple Plain below.

Scene Spotlight: Easter Hymn scene on ‘The Purple Plain’

image courtesy of river valley church

Happy Easter Sunday, friends!

Today’s always a special time for me, a reminder how each day is a gift from the Lord and I’m always thankful for the Christ’ unparalleled sacrifice on the cross on my behalf and every creature living on earth.

Last year, I posted three film recommendations for Easter  if you’re in the mood for some spiritual-themed films to watch not just this weekend, but any other time of the year. I don’t know if people have any Easter movie-viewing traditions the way they do around Christmas. I might watch parts of Ben-Hur Sunday afternoon after church, it’s been a while since I saw it and reading Max’s review recently made me want to see it again.

Another one I might actually watch is David and Bathsheba, which is fitting considering this past Thursday was Gregory Peck’s birthday. I have mentioned that film last year on one of my GP marathon updates, it’s one of Peck’s lesser-known films that was actually pretty huge back in the day, earning five Oscar nominations including Best Screenplay and the biggest box office success of 1951. Though the title role suggests where the film’s focus, that is the romance between the two leads, it’s Peck’s David that carry the whole film. The highlight for me is towards the last 20-min of the film, a solemn sequence of David is praying in front of the Ark of the Covenant, it packed an emotional punch and as Martin Scorsese once said, that scene”…showed Peck’s ability to convey the darkness of the human soul.” I do think that scene is truly the heart of the film. I highly recommend that one if you’re looking for an alternative to The Ten Commandments. 

Ok, now on to the scene spotlight…  this time it’s from Peck’s most underrated WWII drama The Purple Plain.


I’ve mentioned this film before here — Peck played a suicidal squadron leader who found a new purpose in life when he met a Burmese girl Anna, at a Christian missionary camp near his base. In this scene, Forrester is introduced to Miss McNab, the Christian missionary Anna’s family is living with. The most amusing part of the movie is seeing Peck singing the Easter hymn ‘Hallelujah,’ all the while he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl. Definitely a small indie that’s worth your while, it also boasts one of the most-unexpected yet heart-warming movie endings ever.


Have a blessed Easter, everybody! What film(s) are you watching this Easter weekend?

Week-off Viewing Roundup and more Gregory Peck movie marathon

Happy Sunday, everyone! Well, that was that, my week-and-a-half-long holiday is now at an end. It’s ok though, I’m kind of excited to be going back to work tomorrow before I forget what it is I actually do, ahah. It’s been a pretty awesome week for movie viewing, by Sunday evening I’ve watched six films total (well seven if you count my Youtube viewing of Paradine Case), so most of the films I watched are part of my on-going Gregory Peck marathon. I feel like I’m the only one who’s suddenly smitten out of my wits here with a classic (read: dead) actor, I know Nick from Cinema Romantico is also in love with Joanne Woodward, but not sure if his um, obsession is as bad as me, ha..ha.. Well anyway, here’s what I watched this past week:

Thursday

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956)
Gregory Peck played Tom Rath, a former soldier who faces ethical questions at his new job at a PR firm, as he tries to earn enough to support his wife and children well. This film is over 2.5 hours long and the pace is rather slow, but the plot of the story kept me engaged the whole time. There are flashback scenes as Rath reminisces on his years in the war and his affair with a girl in Italy.

The dilemma he faced in this film is quite relevant to today’s time, whether one chooses to be a company man who lives for his work or keep a balanced life of work and family. Jennifer Jones once again co-starred with him as his wife, but of course their relationship is less tumultuous than that in Duel in the Sun. It’s quite an interesting dynamic here too as Jones played a strong-willed and forthright wife, not the typical meek, dutiful housewife typically seen in this era. I highly recommend this one for any of you classic movie aficionados, or anyone looking for a good, well-grounded story.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)
I’ve been wanting to see this film for the longest time, especially since it came highly recommended by my pals Paula and Michael who are both fans of this WWII adventure thriller. Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven are part of a British team sent to cross occupied Greek territory and destroy the massive German gun emplacement that commands a key sea channel.
This film is so darn entertaining from start to finish, plenty of action and great dialog as well as lighthearted moments peppered throughout. The special effects is really something to write home about considering the time this was made, particularly the realistic shipwreck scene. The score by Dimitri Tiomkin is also notable in creating the perfect mood. Now if you’re looking for a historically-accurate film, this isn’t one for you. There is no such place of Navarone in Greece and the size and location of the massive guns themselves are implausible but the historical inaccuracies didn’t derail this movie in any way as it was so well-done. I can see watching this film over and over again in the future. The blu-ray quality is really good and it’s also loaded with extras which are just as fun to watch as the film.

Friday

HUGO

I came to see this one blindly… I merely glanced through a few reviews and didn’t even want to read too much about the plot other than whatever’s presented in the trailer. I’m also not a Scorsese fan but intrigued by the look of the film. Well, it turns out to be an enjoyable family flick that looks beautiful and worth the 3D price. It’s not without flaws however, which I will discuss more in my full review.

Saturday

More Gregory Peck stuff, but I managed to sneak in a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for a long time. Thanks to Michael’s in-depth article posted last week, I just didn’t want to delay watching it any longer!

The Purple Plain (1954)
Out of the dozen-plus GP DVD collection I’ve accumulated, this tiny-budgeted British war drama will surely get a lot of play in my place. It’s such a nice change to see Peck all disheveled and unkempt for most of the film, such a change from Roman Holiday which he did just a year before. Peck plays a Canadian squadron leader Forrester who lost his wife in a bomb raid. His depressed and suicidal ways almost cost him to be dismissed but a compassionate doctor introduces him to a Burmese girl and soon he finds a new purpose in life as he falls for her.

Fate plays a funny trick when he ends up stranded whilst on a routine flight, but his will to live actually becomes stronger. This isn’t a fancy film, but the substandard special effects is balanced by the exotic on-location setting and the sweet interracial romance between Peck’s character and a Burmese actress Win Min Than. It’s nice to see they didn’t cast someone like Jennifer Jones again and paint her eyes to look Asian or something. This is an absolute must-see for fans of Gregory Peck.

The Iron Giant (1999)
I’m so glad I finally saw this film! It’s a heartwarming story about a boy who makes friends with a giant robot from outer space that a paranoid government agent wants to destroy. The kid was initially terrified of the metal-eating robot and rightly so, but after he discovers that he’s a ‘friendly’ robot, they become quick friends and the boy becomes the ‘teacher.’ It reminds me a bit of How to Train Your Dragon in a way, though I think I still rate that a bit higher in my book.


There’s a good message about good vs. evil and choose to use one’s power for good which will resonate to people of all ages. The references to Superman is pretty cute so as a fan of the DC hero it’s such a treat. I read that somehow this movie didn’t do well at the box office, and that is a shame. Not sure if that’s the poor marketing from Warner Bros, but I’m glad that now it seems this movie has become sort of a classic and hopefully more people will see this in DVD/Blu-ray as it’s really worth a watch. So thanks again Michael for egging me on to watch it! 😀

Sunday

Roman Holiday (1953)

Well, talk about a perfect note to end my week-long holiday… I rewatched Roman Holiday for perhaps the fifth time. Oh my, its charm and lovely-ness never ceases to amaze me. One day I’ll write a special appreciation post for that timeless film… but this time I just want to take the time to say a little something about hat pitch-perfect final scene, nary a fairy tale ending in sight.

I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.
~ Princess Anne

A lesser film would’ve ended with Princess Anne rushing out in haste, forgoing her royal duties to spend another day, a lifetime, with that irresistibly handsome newspaperman Joe Bradley. Yes that is what Joe desperately hopes for, and what WE the audience wants to have happened. Little did we know that director William Wyler will have none of that. So we wait… just as Joe waits for the palatial room to clear out. But he soon realizes she’s not coming out, so with a heavy heart he starts walking (that walk alone demands its own blog post, but that’s for another time). As he passes the two guards, he still takes a glimpse towards the stage once more. Empty. The music swells up, forcing us to realize they’re never going to see each other again. Joe keeps on walking towards the camera and disappears, carrying the memory of that day in Rome that he too will cherish for as long as he lives.

Woof! It’s a sobering finale… but one that I too, will cherish for as long as I can remember!


Well, that’s it folks. So what did YOU watch this past weekend?