The Great Escape (1963)
The Perfect War Escapism
Well, with your permission, sir, I think I'll all on kives. Er, call on Ives - MacDonald
As a child I feel lucky that every year, sometimes even twice a year "The Great Escape", that bastion of never say die spirit, was shown on TV. It may cause some to groan when it now gets an occasional airing but for me "The Great Escape" reminds me that no matter how bad things appear, it doesn't mean you should just accept it. Which is all quite deep and a little profound for what is essentially one of the most entertaining, star studded, macho fuelled movies to have been made causing young children to enact out their favourite scenes whilst digging up their parents gardens and emulating Steve McQueen in the motorbike jump scene. But behind all the machismo and entertainment "The Great Escape" is also a poignant story about the men who despite being captured during the Second World War carried on fighting even though they new their efforts would most likely end in death.
In 1943, the Germans have created a new maximum security POW camp known as Stalag Luft North, created to hold all those prisoners determined to escape. But unwittingly the Germans have assembled the best escape team possible and under the guidance of Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett "Big X" (Richard Attenborough - The Lost World: Jurassic Park), the group including Flight Lt. Hendley "The Scrounger" (James Garner - Up Periscope), Flight Lt. Danny Velinski "The Tunnel King" (Charles Bronson - The Magnificent Seven) and Captain Hilts "The Cooler King" (Steve McQueen - The Towering Inferno) they set about staging the biggest and craftiest escapes in the history of the war.
Now I have to say that whilst I find "The Great Escape" completely entertaining, there is no doubt in my mind that although based on a true story there has been a serious amount of liberty taking in turning that story into something cinematic. What I mean is that "The Great Escape" blends different elements such as humour, action with that never say die spirit to make it fun, entertaining and watch able. In the opening scenes where the prisoners enter the new camp, there are a lot of humorous moments along with bravado and machismo making you smile rather than feel depressed at the situation. It's these sorts of liberties along with the composite characters and chain of events which stop it being 100% real and it's not a bad thing, because I am sure the depressing world of these POW camps would not have made for such an entertaining yet uplifting movie.
What is quite surprising is that once you get passed the situation of these prisoners of war, the movie actually plays like a heist movie rather than a war movie. Sounds strange, but if you look at all those well known heist movies such as "The Italian Job" and "Ocean's Eleven" they all go through three stages. You have the getting together of the group and the planning, this is followed by the actual heist and then ends with the get away. "The Great Escape" follows that routine with the prisoners of war all being thrown in together in the one camp, it then goes through all the clever planning, which it has to be said is both ingenious and real, then you get the actual escape followed by the attempted get away. It is a classic heist formula, just without the robbery and it has to be said it plays the formula better than any heist movie I have watched. The inspired ingenuity of the men, the way they covered their tracks, got equipment through cunning and disguised their activities are just some of the reasons why "The Great Escape" is so entertaining
Of course "The Great Escape" is a movie which is famous for the Steve McQueen motorbike jump scene as he attempts his escape. But that is but one moment in what is a movie which is filled with memorable scenes many of which manage to combine action, with emotion as well as a sense of the dangers these men faced. One of the most memorable scenes for me is when the tunnel collapses whilst the men are digging. It may not be the most action packed scene but it delivers the realism of the situation, that these men put their lives seriously on the line in order to make their captors lives miserable.
Whilst "The Great Escape" manages to be entertaining, humorous and action packed it is credit that between director John Sturges and writers James Clavell and W.R. Burnett they have still managed to show a glimpse of what life was like for these prisoners of war. I am not talking about the darkness of the situation, although watching Flying Officer Archibald Ives losing it hits home the desperate situation, but the camaraderie amongst these men. You do get the sense that despite the situation they found encouragement from each other to lift their spirits when they became down and made the unlikeliest of friendships, which probably wouldn't have happened in normal life. It's this side of the movie which helps to make it more than just an escape movie and that it highlights clearly that these men knew that they would die if captured really makes it quite a poignant tribute to those men, the real men not the characters in the movie, who died in action.
John Sturges also has to take a lot of credit for not just assembling a star studded cast which features the likes of Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson and Donald Pleasance as well as far too many more to give credit to, but he creates characters, even the minor ones, which we care for, we will them on to escape and get emotionally connected to them when their lives are in danger. Yes Steve McQueen may be the first name to crop up when you mention "The Great Escape" either for that motorbike jump scene or because he does stick out a bit like a sore thumb. But the rest of the cast play in harmony, there is no one star more important than another and they all manage to deliver that believable camaraderie along with enough machismo to make them both entertaining but also likable.
Now here is the thing you have a male dominated movie, one which is all about male camaraderie and machismo, there is no whiff of romance or a prominent female character, which taking into account what the movie is about makes sense. But even so, and even though many women will groan at the mere mention of "The Great Escape" it is a movie which is as much loved by women as it is men. I have no idea why because theoretically it shouldn't but something about the movie, the humour, the characters, the indomitable spirit makes it appealing to who ever watches it.
What this all boils down to is that "The Great Escape" is a great movie and should get an annual airing on TV. It may not be a completely realistic war movie which revels in the darkness of the situation but it is one which demonstrates that fighting spirit, making it somewhat inspirational. It is also entertaining, humorous and full of action without destroying the emotional, poignant meaning of the story. It's also a lesson to all those heist movies, because it shows how to work that formula to perfection.
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