The Purple Plain (1954)
Like many film stars coming out of the studio era, leading man Gregory Peck headed overseas to stay abroad, make movies and capitalize on some income tax loopholes. One of the films he made during this time period was for Rank that cast Peck as a pilot stationed in Burma, haunted by the death of his wife in an air raid. He has little desire to survive the war and constantly puts himself in harms way while attacking the Japanese enemy from the skies.
Setting the tone for Peck’s tortured character, the opening sequence sees him come to from a deep slumber, soaked with sweat and convinced the enemy are flying overhead and dropping bombs on the airstrip field he’s stationed at. It’s all part of his recurring dream and it’s an opening that grabs your attention as you settle down on the couch to watch this Robert Parrish directed production. Shortly thereafter, the film lets us down with some less than stellar F/X while Peck is on a flying mission, deliberately leaving formation to raise hell on his unseen enemies below. I say less than stellar knowing that The Bridges at Toko-Ri was released the same year as this title and delivered Oscar winning F/X of aerial dogfights and bombing sequences. In that regard, the two films don’t compare.
How do most of Peck’s fellow pilots and mechanics on the base feel about his brash, death wish styled pilot? “Round the bend” seems to be the statement most use including Bernard Lee and Maurice Denham. It’s Lee who steps forward to help cure Peck’s mental anguish. He enlists him to visit and help out a missionary over seen by Brenda de Banzie. Taking Peck’s mind off his troubles is the photogenic Win Min Than as an Asian girl who lives with and helps de Banzie with the many orphaned children.
As this is a character driven war effort, Peck’s Major will slowly find himself falling for Miss Than, thus finding a reason for surviving the war. After the mission is bombed by the Japanese and Peck almost loses his second love in the same fashion, he bears his soul to her and tells of his first wife’s death. “After that, I didn’t want to go on living. You’d think that would be easy enough in war but it didn’t work. I wanted to die but I got medals instead. “ I like this scene for the simple reason that when the appropriate time has come to kiss his leading lady, the scene is far more honest having the two of them hug and hold on to each other.
Testing his will to survive, Peck will find himself with two others crash landing behind enemy lines with little chance of survival. Seeing little hope of a rescue mission, their only choice is to walk through the jungles of Burma.
This turns out to be a fairly straight forward wartime drama that’s been done before and since. There’s far less time spent here on the battle fields and while Peck is a star of the highest order at this time, the film is surprisingly sparse in it’s use of a budget. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peck claimed the lion’s share of the figure, the rest going to the location shooting though there are still a few back screen process shots for the odd close up.
Mr. Peck, delivers a very good performance this time out and of course, looks every inch the movie star while being surrounded by a sparse cast. Leading lady, Win Min Than was a Robert Parrish discovery who made this her one and only film. Not bad landing Greg Peck as her love interest for a one time deal. In Robert Parrish’s book, Hollywood Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, he devotes a number of pages to this production and injects humor into the story of Miss Than chewing on garlic under her husband’s orders for her big screen kiss with Peck. Hubby wasn’t taking any chances with the handsome Greg Peck.
Character actress Brenda de Banzie (who was Oscar worthy in the wonderful Hobson’s Choice the year prior to this release) as the matronly missionary gets the best line in the film. When celebrating dinner with the principle characters on her birthday, she tells of the long trek through the jungles to save as many native lives as possible from the invading forces. She tells Peck, “300 of us died on that journey Mr. Forester. That’s how old I am.”
Down the cast list I noticed that Clive Donner is credited on screen as Editor. Donner would go on to a directing career himself including the zany, What’s New Pussycat? in 1965 among others. He also served as editor on another 1954 Greg Peck filmed abroad flick, The Million Pound Note. Also released through Rank.
Kind of a rare title in the Greg Peck catalogue but worth a look should you come across a copy.