THE MOVING IMAGE: SERE on the Silver Screen

By: Dr. Kalev I. Sepp


The "war movie" genre, typified by tales of face-to-face combat, offers an additional perspective on courage and endurance in human conflict: the prisoner-of-war (POW) film. Stories of criminals (or unjustly sentenced innocents) who are incarcerated and who escape from civil prisons are long-standing favorites in American cinema. These films include Each Dawn I Die (1939), White Heat (1949), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Papillon (1973), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Count of Monte Cristo (the most recent adaptation released in 2002), to mention only a few. In these cases, escape itself is a crime.


Soldiers, however, are obliged by their profession to refuse surrender, evade capture, and, if captured, escape. In 1955, the United States Armed Forces formally established a Code of Conduct for its members, which specifies: "If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape."1 This principle is the central theme in some of the earliest POW movies, in which British cinema has led the way. The Wooden Horse (1950), a film about a clever ruse for tunneling out of the German Stammlager Luft III POW camp, was a commercial success when it was released. It was followed by Albert R. N. (1953), billed as "The War's Most Daring POW Escape!"; The Colditz Story (1955); The One That Got Away (1957), about a Luftwaffe pilot who repeatedly slips away from his British captors; and others. Many films of this type were based on best-selling World War II memoirs.

The success of the recent book and film Unbroken (2014)—the true-life account of an Olympic athlete-airman held by the Japanese army during World War II—calls attention to similar films about the bitter hardships inside prison camps and the bravery of those who survive and find a way out. These accounts can be useful for study by present-day military personnel, particularly members of special operations units who are sent into "denied areas": deep in hostile territory, isolated, and far from support or any ready means of returning to friendly lines. The following are a few of the best, along with some strong runners-up.

World War II

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) follows several storylines that begin and then reconverge at a Japanese POW camp in Siam (now Thailand). An American prisoner who senses his days are numbered escapes the camp and then evades his Japanese pursuers through trackless jungle. A British battalion that surrendered at Singapore arrives in the camp, and its commander collaborates with the Japanese to build "a proper bridge" for their supply trains. Besides aiding the enemy, he also forbids his men to attempt escapes; but he has a powerful rationale for his decisions. The moral questions facing the POWs are complex, with no easy answers. When the movie was released, former Allied prisoners of war picketed at theaters in England and Australia, protesting that the movie underplayed Japanese cruelty and atrocities during World War II. Nevertheless, The Bridge on the River Kwai won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.


Two acclaimed American POW films set in wartime Germany are Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963). The tension inside the fictitious Stalag 17 POW camp grows from the realization among the imprisoned US aircrewmen that their escape attempts are being foiled by one of their own men who has turned informer. The Great Escape is set in the same Stalag complex as The Wooden Horse and is based on a historical account of the mass escape of more than 50 Allied POWs. An interesting aspect of this film is the depiction of the secret internal organization of the prisoners, from their leadership structure to the "committees" performing functions like logistics (aka scrounging), intelligence, tunneling, and security. It is evident in both these movies that Allied aircrews in German POW camps did not suffer the same cruelties that were inflicted by the Japanese on their compatriots or, in the wars to follow, by the North Koreans, Communist Chinese, and North Vietnamese.

The Soviet Gulag

The Way Back (2010) sets a high standard for distance traveled on foot during evasion: 6,500 kilometers to freedom. Based on The Long Walk, the 1956 memoir of a Polish POW imprisoned by the Soviets during World War II, the film crisply depicts the savage Siberian Gulag (the Russian acronym for Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements). A band of escaped prisoners—Poles, a Latvian, a Yugoslav, a Russian, and, interestingly enough, an American—walks across frozen Siberia, the burning Gobi Desert, and the stony Himalayas to haven in British India. Not everyone makes it. Well directed (by Peter Weir, of Master and Commander fame), well acted, and splendidly photographed, it underscores the central importance of the will to survive, and the fundamental human longing for freedom.


Other Gulag films include One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970), from the bestselling novel by Gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This story is about perseverance and endurance, when escape is impossible. In As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me (2001), a German soldier captured by the Russians in 1945 is sentenced to 25 years in a Gulag camp on the Arctic Circle. He escapes, and despite speaking only a few words of Russian, journeys all the way to Iran and, finally, home. This German-made film is similar to The Way Back, but it does not have quite the same cinematic fluency and impact as Weir's excellent work.


While some have questioned the accuracy of all the events portrayed in Rescue Dawn (2006), the film's realistic depiction of US Navy A1E Skyraider pilot Dieter Dengler's experience as a POW has won praise. During SERE training in the United States, Dengler had escaped simulated captivity twice and actually gained weight during the rigorous course—feats that earned him regard among his peers. When he was shot down over Laos in 1966, the Pathet Lao quickly captured him and subsequently punished him for his resistance to "re-education." He lost 93 pounds during his four months as a POW (the actors shed significant body weight for their roles). Even so, director Werner Herzog deliberately chose not to depict the worst of the physical and psychological torture their captors inflicted on the POWs. After escaping, Dengler evaded his pursuers in dense jungle for 23 days before successfully signaling a passing US Air Force Skyraider with a parachute he recovered from an expended illumination flare. There is one more rescue scene: Navy SEALs spirited Dengler from the airbase hospital where he was recovering back to his aircraft carrier and shipmates. Rescue Dawn was well received by critics, and most reviewers placed it in the top 10 movies of 2006.


There are two other Vietnam-era POW movies to consider. The experience of American POWs in the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi is the subject of Hanoi Hilton (1987), a disappointment at the box office but a favorite among Vietnam veterans as a rental video. It was rereleased in 2008 in DVD format, with the addition of interviews with former POWs, including Senator John McCain. Bat-21 (1988) depicts a race between American and North Vietnamese forces to find a high-ranking US electronic warfare officer shot down over enemy territory (his call sign: Bat-21 Bravo). The movie is based on an actual search-and-rescue effort that remains controversial within the US Air Force because strike jets were diverted from supporting major operations in South Vietnam, and SAR aircraft and crewmembers were lost during the 11-day-long recovery attempt. In this regard, Bat-21 provides a basis for debate on this topic.

Denied Areas

Most E & E (escape and evasion) movies are set during large-scale conventional wars, in which the roles of combatants and prisoners of war can readily be understood through internationally accepted conventions. But what about the gray zone between peace and war, where self-proclaimed rebel governments are not actually capable of exercising the authority that a sovereign nation is expected to wield within its borders and over its own citizens?

Argo (2012) takes place in this "realm of uncertainty," while Iran was at full boil following the ouster of the Shah by Shi'a revolutionaries in 1979. The Canadian ambassador secretly gave refuge to six US embassy staffers who avoided capture by Iranian student radicals who stormed and seized the embassy of the "Great Satan" in Tehran. Hidden in the ambassador's home, the six Americans could see no way to get out of Iran without being discovered and arrested. Undaunted, a CIA specialist in extracting personnel from denied areas developed a plan for their rescue. After elaborate (and very entertaining) preparations, he flew to Tehran and successfully facilitated their escape. Deception was the key to success, and deceptions created by canny prisoners are highlights of almost every POW escape movie ever made.


Viewers should keep in mind that the Canadian government actually conceived and managed almost the entire operation, with the CIA in a supporting role, a fact that was publicly affirmed by then-US President Jimmy Carter. But as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor said, "I realize this is a movie, and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats."2 Argo succeeds as a movie—it won three Oscars, including Best Picture—and dramatically depicts the likely political, social, and security environment where special operations personnel may expect to find themselves on future missions. There may not be barbed-wire fences lit by guard-tower searchlights, prisoners tunneling with stolen spoons, or bravura face-offs between POW camp commandants and imprisoned officers who cite Geneva Convention rules. Survival, escape, resistance, and evasion in urban warfare against stateless terrorists may require a rewrite of the script of the classic prisoner-of-war film.

About the Author(s):
Dr. Kalev I. Sepp is a senior lecturer in defense analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces, article III: 
  2. Chris Jancelewicz, "Ben Affleck Changes Argo for Former Canadian Ambassador," Moviefone, 19 September 2012: 
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