Tuesday, May 22, 2012


(July 1963, U.S.)

John Sturges' THE GREAT ESCAPE falls into that category of spectacular World War II film adventures that were released in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and STALAG 17. As a tale of Allied prisoners of war inside a German POW camp, it also, surprisingly, comes up as rather comical at times. If you were ever a fan of the CBS-TV show, HOGAN'S HEROES, you can likely see where the show got much of its inspiration.

For myself, this film was also the first time I'd seen a film of the great Steve McQueen's that was dated before the 1970s. Up until this film I'd only seen him in THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) and THE GETAWAY (1972). His tough guy movie star popularity shines in this film, as it did in nearly all of his roles. He wasn't just tough and edgy, in my opinion, he was also one of the most American actors I ever saw on film. I can't claim to have seen every one of his films (yet), but I've yet to see one where he doesn't play an American hero of sorts. Given the title of the film, I don't have to tell you that the story speaks for itself. What we also get to witness on screen beyond the great escape itself is the daily, exhausting, step-by-step procedures that are endured by all who must dig the tunnel, construct its surroundings, dispose of the dirt and come out on the other side of the prison's stockade. Some of the comical instances I spoke of earlier come when some of the prisoners attempt preliminary, less constructed escapes and fail. Sturges doesn't show these escapes in action but rather shows the discouraged (and rather humiliated) escapees in the next scene returning to the camp upon capture by the Germans; their attempts clearly having failed. There is also comic moments in Steve McQueen's character Virgil Hilts as he's repeatedly thrown into the "cooler" (which is why he's dubbed "the Cooler King") and seems more than content to just sit there with his baseball and glove and have a catch with himself against the wall. It's this action that even ends the film after the great escape has taken place, and subsequently, failed for most of the men who participated. There lies the great irony here in that so much is planned and executed in the process of the great escape and sadly, most of the men are either re-captured or shot to death.

As with Steve McQueen, THE GREAT ESCAPE, from the first time I ever saw it, was an opportunity to see many stars I'd grown up with in much earlier roles. I was a chance to see James Garner before THE ROCKFORD FILES, a chance to see Charles Bronson before his DEATH WISH movies, a chance to see Donald Pleasance before HALLOWEEN (1978) and a chance to see Richard Attenborough as an actor before he went on to direct GANDHI (1982). Even more interesting to notice is that this film does not spend too much time or effort on individual character development. To its credit, the film is strictly a mechanical prison adventure with make-believe men who do not expose much more than their general surface. Perhaps the adventure of escape simply doesn't afford any of these men the time and energy to do so.

Lastly, I'll take a moment to expand on the particular capture of the men Roger Bartlett (played by Attenborough) and Andy MacDonald (played by Gordon Jackson). It's almost frustrating to watch their capture because they're both so very close to getting away, up until MacDonald royally trips up by momentarily forgetting to stick to the German language and mistakenly replies in English to a suspicious Gestapo agent who wishes them "Good luck". As the viewer, you practically hit your own head as you think, "You idiot! You fucked up! Now you're going to die!"

Favorite line or dialogue:

Captain Ramsey: "Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability."

1 comment:

  1. Every time I watch it, I keep hoping that "this time" McQueen makes it over that fence on the motorcycle.