Director: John Sturges
Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Gordon Jackson, Donald Pleasance, Charles Bronson, John Leyton, James Donald, James Coburn, Angus Lennie, Hannes Messemer
Plot: The Germans create a highly-guarded POW camp to keep the best escape artists in. However, the prisoners conduct the greatest escape plan in history to get away.
I have seen this movie so many times, a lot of its themes are drummed into my head. It is a credit to the movie that, despite being one of the films I have seen more than any other, it still remains a great watch to this day, despite almost hitting the dreaded three hour mark. A lot of that is down to culture and historical impact. In many ways, The Great Escape is just as influential as Star Wars, in the way, several trademarks (the soundtrack, the baseball being knocked against a wall in the Cooler, the escape tunnel), being present in any child’s mind. It serves as a patriotic treat for the British, a dark reminder of World War II for the history fans and a bloody good thriller for those that just want to sit down and watch a movie.
The reason it is such a long movie is that attention to detail. This is an important part of World War II history and the director is determined to get every fact right. Most people might remember the iconic ending, that last hour of the film, where the escape and aftermath of the escape take up the entire third act of the movie. However, Sturges doesn’t rush the first two acts, where the British (and other nationalities), meet up, become close and then get around to planning out this major escape. The charm of the final act is mostly down to the fact that we are so close to every character by the time, the action kicks in, and there is a large cast to get through. Steve McQueen spends a lot of the movie off-screen (usually in the cooler, due to mischief caused in the camp), but while this never takes away from his star power, it does allow the other soldiers to charm the audience. My personal favourite is James Garner’s Henley, the American who comes across as a World War II version of Han Solo, endlessly resourceful, mysterious yet charming, and good-natured to the bone. The smaller cast also have enough quirks and flaws to make us root for them. The Polish guy digging the tunnel is claustrophobic. The office worker suddenly becomes blind and is always on the verge of being left behind. The Scottish guy is breaking under being captured for so long. Everyone sticks in the memory and when they start getting drowned in the misery of the ending, we care. The long introduction also allows us to fully appreciate the planning and awe of the actual escape. There is more to the break-out than digging a tunnel. They need to come up with a way of getting rid of excess dirt, getting papers and civilian clothes on hand for crossing the border and they need to keep everything hidden from a group of German soldiers that are trained to look out for the smallest tell-tale signs of escape. Even if the one flaw of this movie is an excessive length, you are happy that the director took the risk, so we can get a holistic approach to this extraordinary tale.
Then there is the escape. The slow build-up makes its tension so much more powerful. The monumental nature of their goals (to break out 250 British soldiers from a POW camp), is so extreme, that it seems impossible that it could actually happen. Yet they are so dedicated, resourceful and upbeat that you are praying that they can pull it off. The slow direction of the action makes it all the more gripping. As one soldier escapes, you are allowed a small relief from the slow dread, only to get plunged right back into it, as the camera turns to the next soldier. When a big cast like this comes along, it is clear that not everyone is going to make it, but you desperately want each prisoner to make it back home. The tension continues outside of the war camp. The train scene, where the prisoners must go undercover as German or French natives is well played, just as exciting as the prisoner of war camp scenes. You are squirming in your seat as the Gestapo get closer to finding out the truth. The ending is impossible to predict and that is one of the main reasons, it is such an important British film.
The thing I like about it more than any other War movie is that the ‘Britishness’ doesn’t get in the way. As the movie starts, the clipped British tones and impossibly good-natured characters might cause a few eyes to roll. It seems unlikely that these soldiers can turn up at a war camp, shake hands and then get to being cheeky British rogues. The upbeat Britishness eventually finds its groove, however. For one, it makes this a cult film, a shining example of how brave those British officers were. However, the real reason the Britishness works is that when the ending comes around, it gets turned on its head. As tense as the train and escape sequences are, we are kept comfortable in that safety net of upbeat Britishness. This is a jolly old war movie; nothing untoward will happen. And then John Sturges hits us with the brutal side of this true story. There is a massive shock at the end, which is tasteful done, but the upsetting twist will rock any viewer who hasn’t realised what is coming. It makes that moment all the more powerful. Saying that, the last closing frames of the movie go right back to that good-natured tone, suggesting that the British (and Americans) were unfazed by the horrors they witnessed and soldiered on regardless. A nice way to send off a great movie.
Final Verdict: The Great Escape is a must-see classic, cinema history and real life history encapsulated in a truly remarkable piece of film-making.