They were enemies in war and rivals in love.
The Brylcreem Boys is an interesting, unpretentious tale about a little known period of history; the neutrality of Ireland during the early days of World War II, and presents a different spin on the prisoner of war film. Solid performances and a decently written if a bit stereotypical story make for a satisfactory if not overwhelming movie experience. Fox Lorber, now called WinStar, fills their niche with an indie film that few people would see otherwise, in a barebones and pan and scan fashion with this DVD.
In the early days of WW II, Ireland (not to be confused with English territory Northern Ireland) tried to maintain a neutral stance. While certainly they would not have been happy with Hitler, they had little reason to love the British and therefore had a policy of interring members of either side who ended up on their soil. Two such men are Canadian pilot Miles Keogh (Bill Campbell, Menno's Mind, Gettysburg, The Rocketeer) and the German gunner who shot him down Count Rudolph von Stegenbek (Angus MacFadyen) who both end up in the same internment camp, with the two warring sides separated only by barbed wire.
Those two sides have plenty of time to interact due to the ludicrously lax security arrangements. Either side can sign themselves out on day passes on their honor not to escape. Because of the legal niceties and entanglements by all sides, if someone were to escape on one of those day passes he would simply be returned by his government anyway. So Brits and Germans alike mingle in the pubs and bet on the same horse races, though not without plenty of tension. So both Keogh and Stegenbek have the opportunity to meet and woo red-haired Irish beauty Mattie Guerin, played by Riverdance progenitor Jean Butler. Stegenbek is a proper gentleman and German Count, while Miles Keogh is a wild motorcyclist (yes, the Irish actually let him loose on a motorcycle) who looks more to escape than to settle down. Wartime experiences and the fact that their nations are at war makes for some bitter tension and rivalry.
When the two sides aren't engaging in one-upmanship or drinking together in pubs, they are dealing with the realities of being a prisoner and the people they are interred with. Stegenbek finds himself at odds with the overly harsh leaders of the German prisoners who would just as soon kill one of their own than let him show weakness. He shows a great sense of German honor and fairness in the face of cruelty exacerbated by the Nazi regime he is fighting for. Miles is torn between the ease and comfort of staying put and seeing this tough, self-reliant lass he's growing more and more attached to, and the desire to escape and get back to the fighting.
There were some genuinely entertaining moments in the film as well as solid acting all around. Gabriel Byrne (End of Days, Stigmata) does a fine job as the camp commander who tries to be fair to all sides while maintaining order. Campbell and MacFadyen turn in professional stints with their characters, and Jean Butler was surprisingly good for a non-actress. The movie has both funny and serious moments, with a dash of action added to the mix. Another fine job was done by William McNamara (Beggars and Choosers) as the American movie actor who decided to join the RAF and found out war wasn't like the silver screen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fox Lorber (still hard to call them WinStar, but I'll get there) does indie films that find niche audiences as a rule, usually with discs not quite up to the standards of the big studios. Here we have a pan and scan version only disc, with a transfer that looks alright, but suffers from some murky shadow detail and a fair amount of grain from the source print. Otherwise it has a clean look and decent colors. The soundtrack is also a bit troubling; with a score that tends to overwhelm the volume level of the dialogue, resulting in the dreaded "turn it up, turn it down" syndrome. The score has too large of a presence in the center channel to simply boost that channel and get by. When the volume is high enough (high enough that some discs would blow me out of my chair) dialogue is clear and understood.
Extras are generally slight on WinStar (see I knew I could do it) discs, and this is no exception. Credits lists and filmographies for a few of the cast, a trailer, and a weblink are all we get. Still considering the nature of the enterprise I'm not complaining that much on this count; I just wish there was more. Once more I'll make my complaint about the absence of subtitles, which might have helped with some of the accented dialogue and enable the hard-of-hearing to also enjoy a disc.
On to the film. The stereotypes are pretty thick when it comes to the Germans, who either come off cruel and overly harsh or as a goose-stepping singing chorus line. On the other hand, the otherwise laissez-faire approach of the Irish seems uncharacteristically bent on decorum. Only the main characters seem fleshed out to be other than backdrop. Still I felt the stronger points of the film outweighed the weaknesses.
I'd classify this as a solid rental. It's worth the time to watch it, but the disc doesn't really cry out for purchase, unless of course you really like the film.
The makers of The Brylcreem Boys are exonerated and I am happy that after a 4 year wait they finally have seen their film get released, and now we have an opportunity to see it on DVD, probably for the first time. WinStar, I know you're filling an underserved niche, but please get with subtitles and go with anamorphic widescreen across the board.
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