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Prisoner of War
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Prisoner of War

In Prisoner of War (1954), a harrowing war drama based on true events, Ronald Reagan plays Webb Sloane, an American army captain during the Korean War who volunteers to go undercover to investigate reports of sub-standard conditions in North Korean POW camps. Infiltrating a camp behind enemy lines, he finds that things are worse than expected. He witnesses brutal mistreatment of the American POWs including starvation, violence, brainwashing and psychological torture. Determined to expose the injustice to the world, he must keep the courageous soldiers alive and strong while figuring out a way to make his escape.

When Prisoner of War came along, the 42-year-old Ronald Reagan was newly married to actress and future first lady Nancy Davis, and was in a bit of a career slump. Since 1950, he had bounced from one studio to another and had recently resigned as President of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan had been turning down most of the lackluster movies offered him during this period. However, when MGM sent him the screenplay for Prisoner of War, he loved it and signed on to the project right away.

For his screenplay, writer Allen Rivkin drew heavily from heart-wrenching true stories told by returning American POWs. When the Army transport "General Walker" docked in San Francisco carrying the first group of returning American soldiers freed from North Korean POW camps, Rivkin was there and personally interviewed sixty of the men. Harsh treatment, lack of food, freezing weather, poor medical treatment, and brainwashing sessions were just some of the horrors that they had lived to tell about, and many of their stories found their way into Prisoner of War.

With Ronald Reagan attached to the project, Prisoner of War was rushed into production in early 1954 in an effort to cash in on the timeliness of the subject matter. In addition, MGM was trying to beat other similar movies to the theaters, such as The Bamboo Prison (1954). Reagan was paid $30,000 for his work on the film. It was his second and final film for MGM (the first was The Bad Man [1941]).

Prisoner of War was shot in 28 days on a shoestring budget with Andrew Marton directing. Capt. Robert H. Wise served as the technical advisor on the film. Wise had spent one year in a Nazi prison camp during World War II and three years in a North Korean prison camp where he nearly starved to death, dropping 90 pounds during his ordeal. His input lent invaluable veracity to the details of the film.

For Andrew Marton, it was crucial to get the film into theaters before the Panmunjom peace talks ended. "Those peace talks went on and on, but I knew they had to come to an end at some point," said Marton. "Our story took place before the peace talks. I said, 'We are in an area which is almost news. It's got to be timely; it's got to come out before those talks end. It's not so much a question of how perfect the dialogue is or how perfect the character development is; you've just got to bring it out now, when the subject is still hot.'"

Despite its hard-hitting subject matter, Prisoner of War failed to make much of an impression on critics or at the box office. The news at the time was so saturated with stories about returning POWs that the film wound up just missing the mark of timeliness. "The picture should have done better," said Ronald Reagan later in his career. "Every torture scene and incident was based on actual happenings documented in official Army records. Unfortunately, production and release were both rushed, with the idea the picture should come out while the headlines were hot."

"The Ronald Reagan character was sent on this mission," said Andrew Marton, "because we as a nation were trying to find a reason for those so-called 'defectors'-the American G.I.s who went over to the Communist side. They were apparently settling in a Communist country-which nobody could understand-and were broadcasting pro-Communist propaganda. This to me presented a conflict, a dramatic situation, and that's what the picture was about."

Producer: Henry Berman
Director: Andrew Marton
Screenplay: Allen Rivkin
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Jeff Alexander
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Webb Sloane), Steve Forrest (Cpl. Joseph Robert Stanton), Dewey Martin (Jesse Treadman), Oskar Homolka (Col. Nikita Biroshilov), Robert Horton (Francis Aloysius Belney), Paul Stewart (Capt. Jack Hodges).
BW-81m.

by Andrea Passafiume

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