No, not *that* prisoner. Peter Glenville’s film popped up at least ten years before Patrick McGoohan immortalised himself in popular culture as a surrealist icon of totalitarian rebelliousness but, in some weird fashion, 1955’s The Prisoner is playing in the same kind of ballpark. Jack Hawkins would have made an excellent Number Two in the ITV series.
Glenville’s film adapts the play by Bridget Boland—who provides the screenplay for the cinematic version—which concerns an ideological battle of wills. The late, great Alec Guinness is a high-ranking Cardinal in an equally unnamed Eastern European, post-war state who is arrested by the establishment on charges of treason. His interrogator (Hawkins) is a former comrade in the Nazi resistance, who now must work to break the mind and spirit of the Cardinal as insurrection foments against a Communist state exercising greater restrictions on the people. What follows is a psychological drama which is as much about personal faith as it is broader political power.
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Boland’s script does not, of course, provide anything beyond particular archetypal representations of the societal mirror the film is holding up to the audience. Of course the state is the Soviet Union, with Guinness the equivalent of a dissident being brought to heel under the Soviet machine; indeed the film was considered dangerous enough to ban from exhibition at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals due to the ideas at its core, and was even by some considered to be pro-Soviet propaganda. However you slice that argument, the reality is that The Prisoner was like a tinder box set aflame at the time; never was the ‘Red Scare’ hotter than the mid-50’s into the early-60’s and while plenty of cinema was starting to use science-fiction for allusion and allegory, The Prisoner goes instead more directly for the jugular.
It works, heavily, thanks to the two powerhouse actors at the heart of the story. Guinness begins as a former resistance fighter assured in his faith that politically he is inviolate as a member of the church, even despite the fact he may hold anti-Communist sympathies, but powerfully brings to bear the complete psychological fragmentation of the Cardinal’s mind as his finery, and his faith, are ripped from under him systematically. Hawkins matches him – an actor who perhaps has not lingered in the public consciousness as Guinness has (Hawkins was dead by 1973 and has no Star Wars to keep him alive in modern hearts and minds), but he was a formidable British screen presence for decades, and provides both a calculated bravado and indeed a surprising depth of conscience as an interrogator whose part in events is more complex than may first appear.
Glenville wisely doesn’t try and be too cinematic in his directorial approach, allowing the themes of Boland’s script to emerge heavily through the performances, but there is no escaping the fact The Prisoner probably would be more of a powerful experience on the stage than screen. It is packed with ideas and questions about the role of church and state, of faith in the face of totalitarian power, and individually how a person keeps hold of their self while being challenged by these things – plus it is an excoriating rebuke, particularly through the lens of history, of the Communist machine without ever using the word Russia. It probably should be a film better known than it is by modern standards.
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Arrow therefore are attempting in their release to reconcile that, packaging The Prisoner with the usual 1080p high-def BluRay presentation, plus a new video appreciation of the film by academic Neil Sinyard called ‘Interrogating Guinness’, select scene commentary by critic and author Philip Kemp, a neat reversible sleeve and an illustrated collectors booklet with new writing by Mark Cunliffe. It’s a good amount of extras to bulk out additional content of a film with plenty to discuss.
The Prisoner has both dated significantly and not at all, rippling with themes and broad political and religious ideas which resonate in the modern day. It may no longer be controversial but it has lost none of its power.
The Prisoner is now available from Arrow Academy.