For a movie that comprises almost nothing but plot, treating characterization as an afterthought at best, it’s peculiar that the biggest shortcoming of the World War II adventure The McKenzie Break is a weak storyline. Plenty of things happen onscreen, but the filmmakers fail to select either a distinct protagonist or a specific point of view. Ostensibly a mano-a-mano contest between a German POW and the British officer assigned to keep the German from leading a mass escape, the picture can’t quite decide whether it’s an offbeat story presenting Nazis as underdogs or a traditional potboiler about keeping Third Reich soldiers from participating in Germany’s war effort. Compounding these problems is a pair of cold leading performances. Helmut Griem is methodical and ruthless as the POW, while Brian Keith is mostly indifferent as the British officer. Despite all of these fundamental problems, The McKenzie Break has several exciting sequences, and the final standoff between the opponents generates real tension. Therefore, even if it’s virtually impossible to connect with the movie on an emotional level, The McKenzie Break has flashes of manly-man spectacle.
Set in Scotland, the movie begins when imprisoned U-boat commander Will Schlüter (Griem) leads a violent rebellion of fellow POWs against British jailers. This sequence sets the mood well because cinematographer Michael Reed’s imagery is suffused with shadows. The rebellion proves that by-the-book camp commander Major Perry (Ian Hendry) isn’t up to the task of corralling resourceful prisoners, so higher-ups assign a new man to run the camp. Enter Captain Jack Connor (Keith), an Irishman with a record of delivering results even as he regularly faces disciplinary action for insubordination. The middle of the movie, during which Connor and Schlüter test each other’s skills, gets awfully turgid, though the subplot of Schlüter persecuting a fellow German officer for being gay is surprising. Eventually, the movie coalesces into a straightforward thriller about the Germans building a tunnel and planning a brazen exodus.
Seeing as how the movie’s title includes the word “break,” it’s giving nothing away to say that the last (and best) third of the picture comprises Connor’s attempts to recapture his prisoners. There’s something to be said for a movie that improves as it goes along. Still, Keith makes some peculiar acting choices along the way. Although his Irish accent seems credible, Keith mumbles most of his dialogue, which saps energy from the movie, and he doesn’t run as far with his character’s mordant sense of humor as he should. More of the snarky energy that infuses the picture’s amusing final line would have helped.
The McKenzie Break: FUNKY