Given its intriguing premise and reliable lineup of actors, “The Brylcreem Boys” should have been much slicker. As it is, this light romantic drama about Allied and German POWs sharing the same intern camp in Ireland during WWII starts ambling along after the opening reels with little sense of dramatic purpose, not helped by TV-style direction that hems in the largely likable performances. The small screen looks to be the most fruitful outing for these “Boys.”
Based on “actual events,” per production notes, the film opens in September 1941 with a young Canadian pilot, Miles Keogh (Bill Campbell), bailing out and thinking he’s landed in France. In fact, he’s hit Irish soil — County Kildare, to be precise — and he’s soon carted off with four of his crew to a detention camp in the countryside run by the genial O’Brien (Gabriel Byrne, twinkling in both eyes).
It’s no ordinary POW camp: In one half is a bunch of Allies, and in the other (separated by a wire fence) are 153 Germans, with each side constantly baiting the other. The Germans are dedicated to escaping; the Allies, with day-release passes and their regular paychecks, are happy to see out the war in relative comfort. The unique setup is a result of a deal between Dublin and the British and German governments to preserve Ireland’s strict neutrality.
The arrival of Keogh, and an equally patriotic German aristocrat (Angus Macfadyen), throws a wrench in the status quo, especially when both fall for local farm girl Mattie (Irish dancer Jean Butler). The high-minded Keogh is also determined to escape, and energizes a Scot (John Gordon Sinclair) to help him. But the biggest surprise about the whole detention camp is yet to come.
What starts off looking like an agreeably quirky comedy, set in an off-center world of its own and peopled by lotsa national stereotypes (crafty Celts, by-the-book Brits, grave Germans), gradually turns into a potpourri of drama, romance and character snapshots (notably William McNamara’s lively turn as a Hollywood actor). For good measure, there’s even a final message — signaled reels earlier — of mutual respect between enemies.
The problem is that none of these elements ever assumes the upper hand, resulting in a pic that’s pleasant enough but leaves no emotional traces by story’s end. Even the political irony of the camp being the same one used 20 years earlier by the British to lock up Irish troublemakers remains undeveloped. With a more focused script and stronger hand at the helm, “The Brylcreem Boys” could have been a winner. Blame the result, maybe, on the fact that there are no fewer than 12 production executives.
In the least shaded role, Campbell is OK and looks the part. As his colorful bunk mate, McNamara steals most of the best moments, with Byrne and Macfadyen contributing cultural cutouts. As the woman in the middle, Butler shines in a routine part. Tech credits are standard, with Richard Hartley’s Irish-pastoral score easy on the ear. Pic was partly shot on the Isle of Man.