“We are the real countries”: space and identity in British, French, and American prisoner of war cinema
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While Prisoner of War (POW) films made in the twenty years following World War II are usually panned for their saccharine nostalgia, they are also imbued with the context of their time. That is, they engage with expressions of nationality, patriotism, gender, and various other markers of identity that are set during World War II, but very much reflect their respective postwar national climates. This thesis focuses on the dramatization of camp spaces in these films and the relationships and ideologies they foster. Spatial theorists like Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja, and Michel Foucault’s biopolitical scholarship, ground my research into three distinctive national cinemas, Britain, France, and America. I argue that British films like The Captive Heart (1946), Albert, R.N. (1953), The Colditz Story (1955), Very Important Person (1961), and The Password is Courage (1962) exemplify British POW cinema’s practice of reimagining what Britishness entails while building a broader community. In contrast, French films like A Man Escaped (1956) and Le caporal épinglé (1962) dramatize pessimistic views of postwar French identity and suggest that community is overrated and that independence is the best way forward. American POW films like Decision Before Dawn (1951), Stalag 17 (1957), 36 Hours (1964), and King Rat (1965) point out flaws in exceptionalist attitudes and highlight the virtues of other ways of moving through conflict. Finally, my examination of The Great Escape (1963) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) looks at how these films use camp space to reinforce expected, and even stereotypical, ways of asserting identity. These films draw attention away from the binary ally/enemy, good/bad, masculine/feminine assertions of identity seen in combat films and instead dramatize culture-reflecting shifts in those values using the prison camp space.