This Anglo-American production is the story of the real-life exploits of a British war hero with the unheroic name of Charles Coward.
The irrepressible Coward was a British NCO nicknamed “the Count of Auschwitz” who, while a prisoner of war from 1940 to 1945, contrived to wage a devastating one-man campaign against the Nazis, making headline news throughout the world.
Dirk Bogarde plays the down-to-earth cockney soldier and Alfred Lynch is superb as Charlie’s friend, Billy Pope. Viennese-born Maria Perschy makes her international screen debut as Irena, a member of the Polish Resistance.
When the film opens, Sergeant Major Coward is one of a weary column of prisoners of war tramping under German guard through occupied France. He tries to escape and makes a run for a nearby farmhouse but lands among a party of wounded German soldiers awaiting transfer to hospital.
Covering himself with a blanket to conceal his uniform, Charlie is carted away with the rest of them. This is how he inadvertently becomes the first British soldier to be awarded the German Iron Cross . . . which he has for about twenty minutes before the Germans discover their mistake.
When Charlie is sent on a cattle truck to prison camp Stalag VIII-B, he playfully sets fire to a train steaming past in the opposite direction. The train contains high explosives bound for the front and blows to bits.
At the camp, Coward busies himself with elaborate escape plans involving a 280-foot tunnel and, when transferred to a lumber camp near Breslau, seizes the opportunity to contact Irena and obtain maps and money. He also manages to set fire to the lumber yard where the British prisoners, always at their best in an emergency, rush around helpfully trying to quell the blaze by throwing buckets of petrol on to the flames . . .
With no lumber yard left, the men are put to work on the railway sidings. Trains are soon mysteriously heading for the wrong destinations, and one of them – with half-severed coupling pins – spectacularly destroys itself soon after departing.
Coward is sent back to Stalag VIII-B where he resumes his tunnelling activities.
It’s an exciting and often very amusing film, with spectacular scenes of destruction. The real Charlie Coward appears briefly as a British prisoner at Stalag VIII-B.
Sergeant Major Charles Coward
Corporal Bill Pope
Andrew L. Stone