The McKenzie Break (1970) – The Ultimate Escape? Brian Keith + Helmut Griem + Ian Hendry
Picture above: Ian Hendry as Colonel Perry in The McKenzie Break (1970)
Ian Hendry appeared in three feature films which depicted events from the second world war; Sink The Bismarck! (1960), The Hill (1965) and The McKenzie Break (1970)
In 1960, he had a small cameo role in Sink The Bismarck! as a Naval Officer on the warship, King George V. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert and featured Kenneth More in the lead role. The film deals directly with the operations, chase and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy during the Second World War. More plays the part of Captain Jonathan Shepard and the film was lauded for it’s historical accuracy, albeit with some minor inconsistencies. It was a ‘typical’ film of the genre and time, telling the tale of an allied battle and victory with the main character providing the moral fibre and fortitude by the bucket-load!
[Lewis Gilbert directed more than 40 films during six decades including Reach for the Sky (1956), Alfie (1966), Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989), as well as three James Bond films: You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).]
The other two WW2 films that he starred in, however, were far from being typical of the genre.
In 1965, Ian Hendry played the part of Staff Sergeant Williams in Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), starring alongside a stellar British cast which included Sean Connery, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen and Michael Redgrave. Set in a British Army “glasshouse” (military detention camp) in the Libyan Desert, prisoners convicted of service offences such as insubordination, being drunk whilst on duty, going AWOL or petty theft etc. are subjected to repetitive drill in the blazing desert heat.
The Hill eschewed the themes so common with other WW2 films. There are no heroes, no victories or valiant defeats, the enemy was on the inside this time and the darker side of human nature gradually emerges as the film progresses. Filmed appropriately in black and white, it creates a stark and uncomfortable portrayal of army life.
Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry) is new to the prison, and his ambition is matched only by his cruel treatment of the prisoners; he seeks to use their suffering as means for promotion. “And what are you supposed to be,” Roberts (Sean Connery) asks him when he is accused of cowardice in battle, “a brave man in a permanent base job?” The RSM seems to agree; in another scene, Roberts slyly mentions the fact that the Germans were bombing the UK (including the civilian prison Williams worked at) just as Williams was volunteering for prison duty in Africa.
Ian’s performance in The Hill was one of his finest moments in film.
Picture: Ian Hendry as Colonel Perry in The McKenzie Break (1970)
The McKenzie Break
Five years later, Ian would return in another second world war film – The McKenzie Break – playing a very different role this time as Major Perry – the Commanding Officer of the camp. Major Perry is an embattled establishment figure, wanting to run things ‘by the ‘book’ but struggling to keep control over the POW’s, the camp and indeed his own men. Both roles (and films), however, are interesting studies of power – the abuse and misuse of it in The Hill and the lack of strong leadership and control in The McKenzie Break.
The video clip below exemplifies this as Colonel Perry (Ian Hendry) struggles to exert his command over Captain Jack Connor (Brian Keith) as they discuss how to deal with the German POW escape plan.
Video: Captain Jack Connor (Brian Keith) and Major Perry (Ian Hendry) discuss the German POW except plan.
It’s interesting to note that The McKenzie Break – like The Hill – explored themes which were uncommon in the second world war genre. Lots of movies had been made about Allied prisoners of war trying to break out of German camps, but there seem to be almost none about German POWs in Allied ones. The only major films in this latter category that I’m aware of are The One That Got Away (1957), a good British film starring German actor Hardy Krüger, and the The McKenzie Break (1970), an Irish-British production.
Adapted by William W. Norton from Sidney Shelley’s novel, the film is extremely intelligent yet low-key affair.
Picture: UK Poster – The McKenzie Break (1970)
Based On Real-Life Events
The plot of the film loosely reflects real-life events at the PoW camp in Grizedale Hall, Cumbria and Bowmanville, Ontario; in particular, the interception of German attempts to communicate in code with the captured U-boat ace Otto Kretschmer, and the “trial” of Captain Rahmlow and his second-in-command, Bernhard Berndt from the U-570, which was surrendered in September 1941, and recommissioned as HMS Graph. Kretschmer was also the subject of Operation Kiebitz, an attempt to liberate several U-boat commanders by submarine, from Bowmanville POW camp in Ontario, Canada, which was foiled by the Royal Canadian Navy.
Picture: Italian Poster – The McKenzie Break (1970)
At a Prisoner of War (POW) camp for Germans in the north of Scotland, Kapitän zur See Willi Schlüter (Helmut Griem) – a German submariner – challenges the authority of the camp’s embattled Commanding Officer, Major Perry (Ian Hendry). British Army Captain Jack Connor (Brian Keith) arrives to investigate what’s happening at the McKenzie POW Camp. It’s also interesting to note that Jack Watson also stars in the film. Jack also starred in The Hill – alongside Ian – as the prisoner, Jock McGrath
Picture: Helmut Griem – The McKenzie Break (1970)
Picture: Ian Hendry and Brian Keith – The McKenzie Break (1970)
Connor believes the camp disturbances are a cover for an escape attempt. During a mass brawl two POWs escape dressed as British soldiers and Connor notices an outcast German POW named Neuchl (Horst Janson), being dragged from the barracks and fleeing from the Germans. He is badly beaten and later that night in the hospital is strangled before Connor gets the chance to learn about Schlüter’s plans.
With Connor investigating the camp, Schlüter leads his 28-man escape party out of a tunnel the next day. Meeting the two escapees who have arranged a U-boat to pick them up, they all head for the coast. Unknown to Schlüter, Connor has broken the code used in letters sent by POWs to Germany and knows the plan.
Connor, along with General Kerr (Jack Watson), starts searching for the prisoners. The Germans head for the coast and burn their escape lorry, which is seen by a reconnaissance plane. Drawn by the burning lorry, Connor (now in an aircraft) locates the Germans attempting to paddle towards a surfaced U-boat at dusk. Connor calls in a Royal Navy motor torpedo boat (MTB) with depth charges to engage the U-boat. With only 50 yards to go, Connor orders the pilot to ‘buzz’ the inflatable dinghies, delaying Schlüter’s craft, and with the MTB arriving, the U-boat dives, leaving Schlüter and three comrades stranded.
The Ultimate Escape
Billed as “the ultimate escape,” a clear reference to United Artists’ earlier blockbuster The Great Escape (1963), The McKenzie Break has similar production values and even, more or less, the same soft-focus style cinematography.
But in a review on the DVD Talk website, Stuart Galbraith explains how The McKenzie Break has different concerns and is anything but rousing:
For starters, Schlüter is a former Hitler Youth and a True Believer. A backstory suggests he murdered the Germans’ own previous CO at the camp, apparently a more compliant, elderly figure probably of the Weimar Republic. Schlüter and his German Navy comrades also despise the minority Luftwaffe prisoners whom, the screenplay implies, Schlüter believes are soft and pampered. Further and most interestingly, Schlüter charismatically controls his men through acts of abject cruelty ridiculing an outcast lieutenant, Neuchl (Horst Janson), accusing him of being a homosexual, and later ordering his murder, unconvincingly dressed as a suicide. “I can see your pleasure in the kill,” Connor tells Schlüter.
The movie plays to Brian Keith’s strength, tapped by filmmakers not nearly as often as they should have been. Keith usually played bigger-than-life types like Teddy Roosevelt in The Wind and the Lion, or gruff, Papa Bear father figures, as in The Parent Trap and his sickly-sweet TV series, Family Affair, the latter an unwise career move. But Keith’s greatest asset as an actor was as a reactor, quietly studying and contemplating what the other characters around him are doing and saying, then with few words offering wry, on-the-money observations. He gets to do that and more in The McKenzie Break and, for the audience, it’s fun to watch him scrutinize Schlüter and try to throw the confident, cocky German off-balance, or catch him in an obvious lie.
Keith also had a talent for languages (he was fluent in Russian, which he spoke in two movies) and dialects, and unlike most American actors that attempt one, Keith’s Irish brogue seems to be spot-on.
Brian Keith as Captain Jack Connor
Helmut Griem as Kapitän zur See Willi Schlüter
Ian Hendry as Major Perry (Camp Commanding Officer)
Jack Watson as Major General Ben Kerr
Patrick O’Connell as Sergeant Major Cox
Horst Janson as Leutnant Neuchl
Until next time
Editor, Official Website of Ian Hendry
A detailed account of the life and work of Ian Hendry in the new biography: