Wessex in Fiction: Escape

Escape was a 1928 play by John Galsworthy, best known as the author of The Forsyte Saga. It tells of World War 1 veteran Captain Matt Denant, who in trying to protect a streetwalker from the attentions of a persistent Metropolitan Police officer, accidentally kills the policeman in a scuffle, and is sentenced to five years in Dartmoor prison for manslaughter. It has been filmed twice, in 1930 and 1948.

The 1930 film was one of Britain’s earliest talkies, and starred Gerald du Maurier as Denant. Much of it was filmed on location, including scenes set on Dartmoor when Denant escapes from prison. The film was a critical success, but a commercial failure, and barely got a release in the US, where it was supposed to benefit from a distribution deal with RKO.

The 1948 remake starring Rex Harrison updates the story to make Denant a veteran of the Second, rather than the First World War, and makes him an RAF squadron leader rather than an army captain. The film was directed by acclaimed director Joseph L Mankiewicz, who was praised for expanding it visually, beyond the constraints of its theatrical origins.

Escape is an examination of the British class system, through the various people Denant meets after his escape, who either aid or obstruct him. Much is made of the perception of Denant as a gentleman, which colours people’s perception of him.

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