Movies We Like
The Great Escape
After putting together a super team for the exciting western The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges assembled the rat-pack for the much duller western, Sergeants 3; so down but not out, Sturges reconvened some of his Magnificent Seven cast for his masterpiece, the WWII POW epic The Great Escape. With apologies to King Rat, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Empire of the Sun, The Hill, and even Victory, the official, no- arguments-allowed Big Three of POW flicks are (in order of release): Stalag 17 then The Bridge on the River Kwai, and finally The Great Escape; you can argue which of the Big Three is tops, but all three are wonderful and will rank in any war movie best-of list.
Like the recent action flicks The Expendables or The Avengers, The Great Escape is about assembling the team of super cool (now familiar) faces. The Magnificent Seven put the young supporting Steve McQueen on the A-List. Here, he’s the top dog and it may be his most memorable role; joined by two of the other Seven co-stars, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (who would both go on to be big stars in the years to come), with James Garner bringing his awe-shucks charm that would captivate TV audiences for decades and, rounding out the team, the British actors Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and James Donald (who was also in The Bridge on the River Kwai), lending some class to the team.
The film is supposedly based on a true story and adapted from a Paul Brickhill book by W. R. Burnett (writer of the cool 1940s crime flicks High Sierra and This Gun for Hire) and James Clavell (he wrote a bunch of big popular epics books like Shogun and, oddly enough, he was the writer and director of To Sir, with Love). At almost three hours, The Great Escape takes its time letting us fall in love with the cast, giving us plenty of time to guess who will make it out and who won’t. A brand new super-escape-proof German POW camp called Stalag Luft III gathers all the worst allied escape artists and unwisely puts them into the same camp. Run by a fairly reasonable Nazi, Commandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer), who hopes everyone can just have a comfortable stay gardening, sitting out the rest of the war. Senior British Office Ramsey (Donald) might be down for a relaxing time, until the legendary X arrives, a British escape legend named Roger (Attenborough, looking like a perfect cross between Peter Lorre and Orson Welles) who immediately sets up a plan to dig three tunnels (they’re named Tom, Dick & Harry) hoping to interrupt the German war effort by sending hundreds of POWS free across Europe. Everyone is given their role in the plan: Dickes (one time Britpop singer, John Leyton) and Danny Velinski (Bronson doing some kind of foreign accent, maybe Polish) are the head diggers, while American actor James Coburn adds humor playing Australian (he would use about the same kinda accent again later playing Irish in Duck, You Sucker) as the quick-witted Manufacturer, Sedwick. American Hendley (Garner) is the scrounger; he makes an offbeat but touching duo with the nearly blind forger Blyth (Pleasence). And the other main American is the lone wolf rebel Hilts, played by McQueen; he reluctantly joins them but prefers to stick to his own plans, which always gets him sent to the brig with his baseball and mitt earning him the nickname “the cooler king.”
Less depressing than Stalag 17 and The Bridge on the River Kwai, here camp life seems almost exiting, while the enemy here is presented as less evil, even likable. The fun is in the details of the escape plan. Digging three massive tunnels requires having to cover a lot of dirt up, which the guys do when gardening, also all that digging with a pick axe requires noise to cover the pounding, so there’s singing and crafts. And these are no crawl-on-all-fours tunnels; these complicated tunnels have lights, air machines, and trams with rope pulleys to transfer you past the wire. And if you do make it out, everyone is outfitted with civilian clothes or Nazi uniforms and, of course, perfectly forged papers (and briefcases). McQueen and Garner, the Americans, even put on a 4th of July celebration complete with booze made from potatoes. But that’s not to say there are no set-backs; it turns out that the “tunnel king” digger Danny is claustrophobic and the need for wood in the tunnel has the guys destroying their own barracks, while still trying to hide their freshly dug dirt all over the compound. The Nazis discover one of the three tunnels and a full moon means they have to make their escape sooner than they had planned, while some guys suffer from an over eagerness to make a dash for it.
This is McQueen’s signature role; dying in 1980 at the young age of 50, he’s now considered a film legend. Maybe he wasn’t the greatest actor (he’s a kinda cooler version of a young Kevin Costner) and he never made as many important films as, say, his contemporary Paul Newman, but he had a charm and a physical presence. He might be just as famous for his ultra-male motorcycle racing and here he does most of his own stunt-riding, as gets chased on his bike by Nazis across the countryside. It’s not just McQueen, most of the cast really get to shine. You can see why Attenborough was considered a fascinating leading man in mostly underappreciated British flicks (Brighton Rock, 10 Rillington Place, etc.). He, of course, became a solid director, with Gandhi being his most acclaimed film. In his only memorable film role, Garner is charming and Bronson, so big and macho but breaking out over his fear of tunnels, gives maybe his best performance, other than his brilliant turn as Harmonica in Once Upon A Time in the West.
The Great Escape is one of those films that anyone can fall for. It’s character-driven, well-acted, professionally shot, meticulously detailed, and absolutely exciting. It has laughs and some heartbreak and while it may be a little hokey compared to the brutality of River Kwai and Stalag 17, as a piece of big lavish entertainment it hits all the right notes. This was always one of those rare war flicks that my mom even loved, so with Mother’s Day coming up, instead of Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes or whatever, why not surprise Mom with something a little different, an actual great movie.
The Great Escape was nominated for a Best Film Editing Oscar.