One of my reasons for starting up this blog in the dim and distant past was to try to drum up a bit of interest in films that had been neglected to some extent. The passage of time has seen me broaden those aims of course, but I like to think I still focus sporadically on the kind of movies that don’t always get so much attention. One such movie is The Purple Plain (1954) from Robert Parrish, a director whose work I find very appealing for the most part. It is a story of war, of survival, and of unexpected romance and has at its heart notions of renewal, rediscovery and rebirth, themes which have enriched so many classic westerns yet which are used skillfully and successfully here.
The on screen caption informs us that it’s Burma in 1945, the latter stages of WWII. Of course the war has not yet ended and the mental strain of the long years of combat and the attendant losses is brought into sharp relief by the opening scene. A man is shocked into wakefulness by the sounds of an imminent air raid. Startled, he darts out into the night, pounding along the primitive airstrip towards his plane, determined to get it aloft and to stand at least a fighting chance. His crew seem unaware of the danger though and as he struggles to sense this into them it becomes apparent that his grip on reality is tenuous. This man is Forrester (Gregory Peck), a Canadian pilot who is clearly suffering from PTSD.
This is further highlighted when his moodiness, disassociation and recklessness are seen to alienate almost everyone he comes into contact with, all but two people anyway. The first is the medical officer Harris (Bernard Lee), a thoughtful, humanitarian type who regards Forrester as a challenge as opposed to some hopeless lost soul. It is through the efforts of Harris to encourage Forrester to establish contact with others again that he encounters the other person who is able to reach him. Anna (Win Min Than) is a resident of a local Christian mission and it is she more than anyone else who manages to penetrate the tortured cocoon which Forrester has constructed around himself.
Here we have the emotional hub around which the movie revolves, and it is a powerful one. It needs to be too because Forrester is shown to be a man who has abandoned life itself, who has not only been scarred by the war but has dedicated himself to dying. In short, Forrester is about to plunge into a spiritual abyss. For a man to haul himself back from such a precipitous position requires both iron resolve and an all-consuming motive. That motive is the simple love he has inspired and in turn been touched by. This has to be credible, credible enough to make a man start to regain an appetite for living, and credible enough too to sustain him when he finds himself cast into the wilderness and facing the twin trials of not merely surviving but ensuring the salvation of those dependent on him. In The Purple Plain it feels wholly credible at all times.
Given the right material, Robert Parrish was a director capable of great sensitivity, able to tap into some deep humanist reserve to produce works that linger in the memory. For me, The Purple Plain is one of those movies where direction, writing, cinematography and performances all mesh perfectly. Working from a story by H E Bates, Eric Ambler (one of the finest thriller/espionage novelists of the 20th century) fashions a script that is compact, accessible and absorbing. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is lush and evocative, using nighttime filters attractively (which is no mean feat), while future director Clive Donner edits the whole thing in such a way as to disguise the limitations of the budget. Parrish brings all of this together with great assurance and skill. The visuals have a style and economy that is is admirable, a case in point being an early flashback sequence, a fast cut montage combining love, chaos, destruction and loss. We are swept along from intimacy to devastation in just 90 seconds, the director concisely conveying all we need to know about the bleak despair of Peck’s character in that brief burst of action. Visually, Parrish captures and communicates the prevailing mood with aplomb throughout though, from the softness and warmth of the moments Forrester and Anna share to the stark and spartan atmosphere of the wilderness whether by day or by night.
Peck does remarkably good work as a man existing on the periphery of desperation, thrown a lifeline and offered a chance to rebuild his life. He moves effortlessly from the remote detachment at the beginning to a halting, uncertain awareness of a fresh opportunity and then finally on to a grim determination to maintain a hold on life and hope. Underpinning all this is Win Min Than as the soft spoken Burmese with an unshakeable faith and devotion. Perhaps her contribution is even more remarkable given the fact she wasn’t really an actress and this would be her only film role. She brings what I can only describe as intense serenity to her part and the result is that her scenes with Peck have a power and tenderness that is very moving, attaining an almost oneiric quality that builds up to that final shot which is all the more satisfying for its subtlety.
Frankly, the movie is all about those two, which is not to say that Bernard Lee, Maurice Denham, Lyndon Brook or Brenda De Banzie should be overlooked. Each one of them brings something vital to the film and each one lays down a spiritual marker to assist Peck’s character on his path back to fulfillment.
I understand the US Blu-ray of The Purple Plain is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. My own copy is the UK DVD, which is 1.33:1, and I can’t say it looked poorly framed. The colors are well rendered and it is sharp and clear. To reiterate what I said at the top of this piece, this is a film that I believe has been afforded less attention than it deserves. It is a fine effort, touching on some eternal themes and presented in a way that is positive, affirmative and cinematic.