Americans couldn't break out of Colditz but they've escaped with the screen rights

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was one of the most effective recruiting posters of the Second World War: a child sat on its father's knee asking "What did you do in the war, Daddy?"

It was one of the most effective recruiting posters of the Second World War: a child sat on its father's knee asking "What did you do in the war, Daddy?"

Today he could find it difficult to answer, as Hollywood has relegated Britain's finest hour to the cutting-room floor. Following the success of such films as Saving Private Ryan and now U-571, the US film industry is again being accused of rewriting history. Academics and veterans are concerned children are being left ignorant of the true events of history. Now The Colditz Story, one of the most celebrated tales of British bravery and fortitude in the Second World War, is set to get a Hollywood makeover. A new version will tell it the all-American way, with US actors playing American PoWs undertaking heroic escape attempts from the fortress prison.

The Miramax company has acquired the rights to the books by Pat Reid, who broke out of the camp, near Leipzig, in 1942 and later wrote two best-sellers which were turned into a popular film starring John Mills, and a BBC series.

Harvey Weinstein, boss of Miramax, said the new version would be star-studded: "I have spoken to Tom [Cruise], Matt [Damon] and Ben [Affleck] and they are up for it, and very interested."

But the prospect of Americanisation leaves those who were there, the survivors of Colditz, bemused. No US servicemen took part in a Colditz escape attempt - indeed, they were not even at the camp when the attempts took place.

Kenneth Lockwood, ex-PoW and secretary of the Colditz Association, said: "I most sincerely hope they don't turn this into an American show. That will be laughable and it will be a travesty of history." Mr Lockwood, who was in Colditz for four years and five months, said: "Obviously one would like to see the script before deciding what to do. My personal view is they would be laughed out of court if the Americans are shown as taking the lead in escaping from Colditz ... eight Americans came to Colditz right at the end of the war but by then all escape attempts had stopped. So they were not in a position to take part in any escapes. The problem is, some people very easily confuse films with history."

That has never bothered Hollywood. Some would say that if US filmmakers had their way, every war since Troy would have been fought and won by the US.

The realities, like Vietnam, are much more painful. In the the Second World War, Errol Flynn who had avoided joining the forces, single-handedly liberated Burma from the Japanese. The Americans, like Flynn, were conspicuous by their absence in the real campaign. The film, Objective, Burma!, led to angry reaction. The Daily Mirror ran a cartoon of a Hollywood director on a studio chair that was on a multitude of tiny crosses. The caption read "Excuse me, but you are sitting on some graves."

The Colditz revisionist version is not the first time Hollywood had wanted Americans to lead break-outs from Axis camps. When the escape from Stalag Luft III, which ended with 50 servicemen being killed on Hitler's orders, was turned into a film, it was an American, Steve McQueen, playing a US soldier, who took the lead role. The film was a great success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Weinstein, in planning his remake of the The Colditz Story, acknowledges the British presence and promises British actors will be involved in the production. But the big studios say that having Americans in lead is essential for commercial success and that some artistic licence should be allowed.

But recent experience has shown that if this licence leads to a serious warping of history, protests can sometimes work. In 1941 one of the most pivotal acts of the war took place with the capture of the Enigma cipher machine from the German submarine U-110 by a landing party party from HMS Bulldog led by David Balme, a 20-year-old sub-lieutenant. In 1942 the crew of the destroyer HMS Petard made another breakthrough when, with the loss of two lives, they captured the code books for the Enigma machine, enabling the Allies to plot the movements of U-boats. But when Universal decided to turn the story into a £55m film with Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi and Matthew McConaughey, it was the US Navy that became responsible for altering the course of the war.

Although the US Navy did capture a cipher machine in 1944, the film makes no mention of the fact that it was British sailors who made the breakthrough.

Robert de Pass, the only surviving officer from the Petard, said films emphasising the role of Americans could mislead British children in an age when cinema was a more powerful purveyor of popular history than books.

Mr de Pass, the president of the HMS Petard Association, said: "It is unfortunate but I am afraid one suspects it is commerce. It would sell better if it is the Americans that have done it all. If they concentrated on the British role it would not have the same marketing appeal."

Only after protests by Julian Lewis, constituency MP for Mr Balme, did Universal agree to acknowledge the Royal Navy's actions in a dedication at the end of the film. Dr Lewis raised the matter in the House of Commons and received cross-party support, with 40 MPs signing a motion deploring the falsification.

Mr Balme, now living in the New Forest, Hampshire, said: "I wanted them to put something at the beginning as well but they wouldn't do that. They said people wouldn't look at the film so much if they were told it was all fiction and the British really did it." Some veterans are still angry but Mr Balme said: "At the end I was happy with what happened. Universal took note of our objections and I am personally very pleased with the tribute they have given at the end. The British will get the credit we deserve. They appear to be genuinely sorry about the fact they had upset people."

Dr Lewis, a military historian, said: "This is a lesson on how one can perhaps marry the commercial needs of filmmaking while ensuring historical accuracy is not thrown out of the window. Universal behaved quite properly at the end."

U-571 was the biggest hit of the Easter weekend when it opened in the US, taking some $22m (£14m).

But many British veterans still feel they generally get short-changed when it comes to cinematic versions of war. The 1981 film Gallipoli was not only an international hit but was seen as a bold statement of Australian nationalism. It recounted how in the campaign in the First War, a folly by Churchill, the lions of Australia and New Zealand were sent to their deaths by the donkeys of the British general staff. There is little doubt about the slaughter: Anzac losses were 33,600 but, veterans point out, British losses were more - 43,000.