World War II prison camp movies are something lots of movie and TV viewers (mainly male) like, but are ashamed to admit they like. POW-film fans, come out of the closets: There is nothing to be ashamed of.
Movies such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Great Escape" and "King Rat" aren't simply war films or adventure films. They are also suspense films (who'll get out alive, if anyone gets out at all?), mystery films (is there an informer in the camp, and who is he?), wits-matching films (Yank/Brit vs. Japanese/Nazi) and often are pretty funny to boot ("Stalag 17").
The plot may be formula, the characterization cliched and the romance nil--but you can't have everything. (And please, don't bring up "Hogan's Heroes.")
During the first of its two parts, "The Great Escape II: The Untold Story" (Sunday and Monday, 9-11 p.m., Channels 4, 36 and 39) fits into the tradition nicely--even though it has nothing to do with the first "Great Escape" (1963 theatrical film), can't hold a candle to a classic like "Kwai," and paints its characters with strokes so broad they can hardly be seen.
Screenwriter Walter Halsey Davis seems to have dealt with the genre's unavoidable cliched-personality problem by giving most of his people no personalities. The most notable exception is the cockiness of American pilot Mike Corey (Anthony Denison), apparently a rough stand-in for Steve McQueen's role in the original. Corey may be one-dimensional, but that's one whole dimension more than Davis provides Maj. John Dodge (Christopher Reeve) and the other inmates of this deliciously typical German camp.
Not to worry. Directed with class by Paul Wendkos, and well acted, Part 1 of "Great Escape II" serves up most of the POW-film standards with style.
Unfortunately, things go completely awry in Part 2, where Davis has the audacity to shift the scene to after the war, when Reeve and Denison hunt the war criminals who murdered 50 fellow escapees. They're joined by Judd Hirsch (as an investigator) and deserted by Wendkos, who smartly escaped from the project just in time--handing the directorial reins to Jud Taylor.
Whether the blame goes to Taylor or Davis or both, the story drags out its final two hours like a condemned prisoner. It is predictable and ponderous. But if you look at the half that's full rather than the half that's empty, "The Great Escape II," allegedly "based on a true story," isn't half-bad.