‘The One That Got Away’ or — Escape Variations?

All I knew going into Roy Ward Baker’s ‘The One That Got Away’ (1957) was that it was about “the only German prisoner of war captured in Britain who managed to escape and successfully return to his homeland”, which is exactly what this movie is. Yet that sentence is carefully worded so even though it is totally accurate, and fully reveals the ending, there is so much more excitement, incident and surprises here than I imagined. Boy, this film is fantastic!

Oberleutnant Franz von Werra (Hardy Kruger), a Luftwaffe pilot, is shot down and crash lands in Britain. Werra is sent to a POW camp in the Lake District where he is told escape is impossible due to the unforgiving and remote surroundings although this doesn’t deter Werra from planning to do so. If he can make it to Liverpool then all he has to do is find passage on a neutral ship and he’ll be out of Britain.

And he might just do it as Franz von Werra is both determined and confident. He’s an ace pilot having shot down many RAF planes and his arrogant nature has made him famous back in Germany where he frequently poses for publicity photos with his pet Lion cub. Yet as his interrogating officer points out to Werra, most of his claims in battle are spurious at best (after all, the RAF know exactly which planes of theirs have been lost) so it could be that Werra has more bluff than bravado. Or maybe he has the perfect balance of both? Either way, Werra is going to need all the bluff and bravado he can muster if he is to escape Lancashire and return to Germany.

Can Werra give his British guards the slip? Can he survive the harsh conditions of the Lake District’s countryside without an adequate supply of Kendal Mint Cake? And, more importantly, will this movie be able to generate any excitement at all if we know he manages to do so? Watch ‘The One That Got Away’ and find out!

Okay, so all the above is pretty much what I expected this movie to be and, for the first thirty minutes or so, is exactly that as Werra plans and executes his escape plan. And it’s jolly good stuff as we witness him use ingenuity and balls to break out and escape. The characters are nicely fleshed out, no one is demonised and it’s all directed with professional skill. But still, no real big surprises.

And then…

And then I don’t want to say anything more because ‘The One That Got Away’ simply gets better and better, more exciting and gripping as it goes along. By the end I was sitting there thinking I’d really seen something special and unique. It might not start off particularly remarkable but it sure ends off that way.

This is chiefly down to the fact that, without giving anything away, not all of Werra’s plans succeed. This means he often has to improvise, adapt, bluff or simply trust to pure luck. So what I thought might be a standard man-hunt across rain blasted moors for a couple of hours actually contains vastly more variation that just that. For example — there’s an incredibly gripping scene involving Werra, an experimental Hurricane and a totally inadequate disguise that requires total brass balls in order for Werra to pull it all off that’s a real thrill to watch. And it only gets more exciting from there on.

By the climax (which, again, I won’t reveal) we were in territory I was utterly not expecting (when the film finishes you can sense that carefully worded quotation I mentioned at the start is slyly coy about not giving too much away) and in a visual landscape that has the look and feel of a desperate dream, distant lights twinkling in the darkness and a complete state of delirious disorientation.

‘The One That Got Away’ is a gorgeous black and white movie. It starts off relatively unassuming, most of the “action” taking place in military offices and a few fields. Yet by the time Werra is out in the open the cinematography (by Eric Cross) becomes seriously impressive. Rain blasted panoramas of the Lake District fill the screen to the extent you can feel the chill cut through you whilst, near the end, there’s a phenomenal panning shot of a frozen river, snow pouring in from distant and unreachable horizons.

Am I over selling ‘The One That Got Away’? No, the film is this good. It’s gripping, exciting, varied, beautifully shot, elegantly directed, contains a wonderfully charming performance by Kruger and ends on a deliciously tantalising note that we’ve only just seen a fraction of Franz von Werra’s adventure. It left me ravenously greedy for more.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.