The Purple Plain
Fans of this show know it as the It’s a Wonderful Life of war movies, an intensely moving tale that restores feeling and tenderness to people crippled by loss and despair. The stellar pairing of top star Gregory Peck and Burmese unknown Win Min Than is unique in movies and not to be missed.
The Purple Plain
KL Studio Classics
1955 / Color /1:66 widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date April 5, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Gregory Peck, Win Min Than, Brenda De Banzie, Bernard Lee,
Maurice Denham, Lyndon Brook, Anthony Bushell, Josephine Griffin
Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth
Art Direction Donald M. Ashton, Jack Maxsted
Film Editor Clive Donner
Original Music John Veale
Written by Eric Ambler from a novel by H.E. Bates
Produced by John Bryan, Earl St. John
Directed by Robert Parrish
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
How can one convey the way a picture grows on one? I liked The Purple Plain the first time I saw it, but on subsequent viewings the music and images blended to express almost painful feelings — especially of relief and happiness. It’s a core ‘therapeutic’ movie about a man working his way past deep personal wounds. The supposedly inexpressive Gregory Peck is perfectly cast and directed, away from his familiar image in pictures like To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Purple Plain is one of those movies that people never forget even if they can’t remember its title. It’s an odd English war movie that stresses characters over combat; because it stars Gregory Peck as an emotionally traumatized flier it will probably draw comparison to Twelve O’Clock High. It plays like a slightly subdued Powell/Pressburger film — the intense visuals seem plugged directly into the emotions of the characters. Couple that with some sensitive direction and offbeat casting, and The Purple Plain is a strange, hypnotic experience. Savant highly recommends it.
Squadron Leader Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck) flies a mosquito fighter-bomber in the Burma Theater, earning medals for reckless missions. His fellow airmen are convinced he’s gone nuts: he’s hostile, incommunicative and prone to nightmares and anxiety attacks. A copilot wounded during one of Forrester’s manic ‘voluntary’ extra bombing runs counts his blessings for not having to fly with him. Dr. Harris (Bernard Lee) coerces Bill into coming to a Missionary dinner to try and help him relax. Forrester meets a refugee nurse named Anna (Win Min Than) and begins a process of emotional healing. There’s a terrible story behind his suicidal flying: it began with the death of his bride (Josephine Griffin) on her wedding night. Invigorated by his new bond with Anna, Bill takes off on a routine mission to check out a new navigator (Lyndon Brook) and carry a passenger (Maurice Denham) to another camp. Engine trouble forces a jungle landing. Now Bill must take responsibility for his injured comrades. He finds new strength in his commitment to return to Anna — who has been told that he’s probably already dead.
The oddly-titled The Purple Plain is a critical favorite that always hits an emotional chord with audiences; Eric Ambler’s story and Robert Parrish’s subdued direction convey an unspoken feeling of faith and abiding inner peace. It’s a therapeutic tale in that we see the emotional healing of a flyer that the R.A.F. thinks may have gone ’round the bend.’ Plain shows him as a man with an acute adjustment problem. Rather than deny the memory of his lost wife, he flies like a madman in hope of joining her. The airplane mechanics hate Forrester and his bunkmate lectures him. All shake their heads when Bill blindly strides across a runway while airplanes are landing. It’s a clear case of death wish.
The kindly doctor (Bernard Lee of The Third Man) knows that the cure is to get Bill back among the living, and so takes him to meet missionary Miss McNab, played beautifully by Brenda De Banzie. McNab evacuated Rangoon with thousands of refugees and saw 300 of them die on the trail. Miss McNab’s psalm-singing ball of energy commands our respect even as Bill and the Doctor (and Anna) smile at her excess of enthusiasm. Bill has to appreciate that he’s not the only one to have suffered, especially when he meets nurse’s aide Anna, a Burmese who quickly falls in love with him.
Anna is played by Win Min Than, an unusual beauty with a strange combination of features, not in line with conventional Western standards. Giant close-ups treat her with the reverence accorded icons like Jennifer Jones, and after all these years she has taken on the mystery of other leading ladies with just one or a few credits, like Roberta Haynes in the similarly wistful film Return to Paradise (another half-forgotten UA gem). We’re told that Win Min Than was a non-actor, the wife of a diplomat. She was apparently difficult to direct, so fragile and self-conscious that extended takes of any kind were a chore. Yet she seems natural when placed with Gregory Peck, who seems much more sensitive and caring alongside this visibly vulnerable woman. Great acting, no — but for this unusual movie, what we get is preferable to slick professionalism. Win Min Than is clearly charmed by the tall gentle Peck. Her eyes sparkle and her lip curls into a mysterious smile, and the fifty years that have passed seem like nothing. How nice it must be to see grandmother immortalized in this way… and in such a respectable movie.
Bill’s jungle survival problem is a well-directed misadventure, a cruel problem of logistics. Faced with what to his scientist-passenger (Maurice Denham) is a death trap, Forrester instead rediscovers his inner strength. That’s the big drama but what we remember more are the film’s odd details. Near the beginning Forrester watches impassively as a Burmese kid torments a little lizard. We can feel his discontent. Anna gives Bill what is supposed to be a precious ruby, which the scientist later dismisses as worthless. But the ruby is from Anna and as such represents un-measurable value to Bill. To get back to her, he’ll perform a miracle of endurance. This is an inspirational movie, a romance between an American (or Canadian?) and a Burmese woman. The interracial element is not for a moment presented as an obstacle, which right there makes the movie very unusual for its year. Ordinary U.S. pictures were still insisting that interracial love finish in death for the ‘dark’ woman; a romance between a white woman and a darker man was out of the question.
The Purple Plain’s view of war is neither cynical nor sentimental. Downed planes and their crews sometimes have to be written off, while survivors of a mass evacuation are left to mourn the loss of hundreds of their loved ones. Flying over ‘Jap held territory,’ one of the flyers looks at the rough terrain and says, ‘They’re welcome to it,” Bill’s mental nightmares are a Technicolor vision out of The Red Shoes; the same chaotic visuals return in a real bombing raid on the Burmese villiage. Because Bill has lost the respect of his mechanics they ignore his repair instructions, which makes his instability indirectly responsible for the airplane crash. Likewise, Bill’s “we’re going to walk out of this jungle” courage can only go so far when his scientist companion, convinced that the pilot is crazy, can muster no faith in his judgment. Bill must eventually carry on alone, and ask a wounded buddy to trust in him.
The Purple Plain has one of the most moving, yet understated endings I’ve seen in a romance or a war film. It may have come about because the filmmakers thought their leading lady incapable of playing a complex emotional scene, I don’t know. Yet it is a thing of beauty, a unique visual representation of a reward earned and peace regained. There is no emotional reunion, just the anticipation of one, and the effect is sublime. Bill and Anna will be reborn in a figurative marriage bed, whole people once more. We see none of this happen, but we don’t need to. The ending is a wonderful transposition of the kind of moment that normally works only in literature. If you see The Purple Plain, make sure to watch its last half without interruption.
Director Robert Parrish was an editor for John Ford. His erratic directing career yielded several notable films but never a breakthrough commercial hit. The Purple Plain is perhaps his best movie overall, along with the exceptionally rich United Artists western The Wonderful Country and the effortlessly hip tough-guy film noir Cry Danger. His first film The Mob is fairly good too. Perhaps there are more undiscovered gems in the Parrish filmography, but his other films readily available are less than stellar: Fire Down Below, Casino Royale, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (Doppelganger).
The Purple Plain was filmed in Sri Lanka on some very impressive locations (Thank you, Art Fisher). Relatively poor models are used for the flying scenes; I’ve come to enjoy their artificiality. Dick Dinman explained in 2005 the story of how Gregory Peck came to be in this foreign-produced picture:
“Glenn: Regarding Peck’s involvement in The Purple Plain. In 1952 the Federal Government instituted a plan that offered huge financial tax loopholes/benefits to stars if they would spend at least two consecutive years working in Europe — hence there was an overseas rush of U.S. stars to film projects in Europe. Examples: Peck (Roman Holiday, The Purple Plain, Man with a Million, Moby Dick); Alan Ladd (Paratrooper, Hell Below Zero, The Black Knight), Gene Kelly (The Devil Makes Three, Crest of the Wave, Invitation to the Dance); Robert Taylor (Ivanhoe, Valley of the Kings, Knights of the Round Table etc.) The irony is that most of the loopholes were rescinded and all was for naught, and to top it all off Ladd and Kelly lost their forward momentum from Shane and Singin’ in the Rain and irreparably damaged their careers.”
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Purple Plain is even better than I had hoped, an adapted widescreen transfer that brings out the beauty in Geoffrey Unsworth’s glowing images. Old TV prints simply made everyone look dark red, but this scan restores the tropical textures in the many impressive close-ups. It’s a great improvement on the DVD so I can recommend an upgrade. In HD we see the inadequate flying effects in some of the scenes, but we also see every detail in Parrish’s near-perfect direction: the lime green of the drink served to Forrester against the wispy curtains; the subtle hints that Dr. Harris and Mrs. McNab are deeply invested in the relationship of the suicidal pilot and the emotionally scarred refugee nurse.
The romantic scenes are especially effective in this scan — the recognition of strong feelings between Forrester and Anna is made all the more intense. Favorite Brit editor Eric Boyd-Perkins (Gorgo, She, No Blade of Grass, The Wicker Man) worked sound editing on the show. Many examples of excellent sound work pull us into Forrester’s emotional vacuum, as when the scritch-scratch of Maurice Denham’s pen takes over the audio track and becomes an irritant. Ms. Than’s voice may have been dubbed, but it sounds natural to me.
Future director Clive Donner was Parrish’s picture editor. When the two lost souls finally fall into each other’s arms, Donner successfully reprises an effect from George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun: across a dissolve, their embrace is step-printed, perhaps to express how they would like to slow down time.
Composer (John Veale didn’t score many movies but his haunting themes for this show linger in the memory. The music seems to be always waiting in the background, to reach forward to underline a close-up.
What exactly is the “It’s a Wonderful Life” factor in The Purple Plain? Robert Parrish and screenwriter Eric Ambler’s main achievement is to create a positive feeling about people. Forrester is out of control when the show begins, a menace to his colleagues and a miserable person to be around. Yet the Doctor and Mrs. McNab invest in his welfare. They take the time care for little village kids and lost souls like Forrester. He’s a man returned from a nightmare, and his release of tension, of all care, is remarkable to see. This may not be Gregory Peck’s best performance, but I think it’s the one that makes the best use of his acting range. I never bought him in roles where he just sets his jaw and lets his authoritative voice do all the acting. No foolish endearments are exchanged in the romantic scenes. Anna gives Forrester a ruby so he ‘can always keep it for her;’ while he says that he’ll never want to be anyplace else, and that he’ll always come back to her. What more can people promise each other?
I’m happy to report that Kino’s disc is encoded with English subtitles… a very welcome surprise.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Purple Plain Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Trailers for On the Beach, The Wonderful Country and Billy Two Hats
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 27, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson