|'); document.write(''); //-->|
The Great Escape stands alone among war movies; to date it's still the most successful effort that maintains the basic truth of its events while embellishing them with irresistible adventure. Veterans are often scornful of war movies claiming to honor their sacrifice: The Battle of the Bulge, Pearl Harbor, even to a degree Saving Private Ryan. United Artists showed the finished copy of this film to an audience of real ex-POW's in England, and they loved it. The Great Escape presents them as the most dashing and daring heroes of the 20th century!
MGM's special edition of The Great Escape was actually prepared in 2001 but will probably be even more of a hit now, when war news is on everyone's minds. MGM has a number of "backlogged" action-adventure special eds, that will be filtering out in the next year or so. Some have already been released in Region 2.
The Great Escape cleverly turns a defeat into a tale of victory. No matter how it's made to look, the bottom line of the mass escape from the German prisoner of war camp is the same as Paul Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange: a lot of rebellious defiance is channeled into risky wartime adventure, and a lot of good men get killed. In both of these movies we celebrate the protagonists as they dare to defy their German captors. Richard Attenborough's hundreds of organized "activists" rebel and do their darndest to confound the enemy within the parameters of the Fair Rules of War. We aren't bothered by the fact that their efforts had little effect on the war proper. They officially accomplished little more than show that the Germans were willing to break the Geneva convention and murder prisoners, unless you count the added benefit of higher morale, and the couple of prisoners who actually did reach freedom. But the trial-by-escape with its risk and sacrifice was a personal victory for men otherwise unable to fight: Civilized defiance.
The Great Escape isn't like The Bridge on the River Kwai in that motives are never in question. Poor Colonel Nicholson faces watching his troops die of sickness under brutal Japanese abuse while James Donald's fliers are treated reasonably well. The German guards envy them their Red Cross parcels from home. For men who are well-fed, bored and itching to do something, elaborate escape plans are as big a morale booster as building a bridge.
Escape is also unlike The Guns of Navarone, an adventure fantasy with heroic commandoes performing 007-like feats of escape and sabotage and singlehandedly changing the course of the war. The prisoners may be played by big stars like James Garner and Steve McQueen, but they're not supermen. The enemy they face aren't silly guards easily fooled or ambushed. They don't have "bad guy" guns, the kind that shoot a lot but seldom scratch a running hero.
This is a caper film, actually, like The Asphalt Jungle or Ocean's Eleven. The schemes, dodges and con games used by the prisoners to carry out a huge tunneling operation are a caper far more elaborate than a bank job. They're also entertaining, funny, and credible. The Germans don't look like fools for not catching on.
Unlike Billy Wilder's far-too-cynical Stalag 17 there are no deep-cover German agents among the prisoners to sow discord and paranoia. The only cynicism is on the mocking faces of various defiant escapees, whose refusal to accept defeat must be an inspiration to anyone who wants to think of themself as a rebel. I'm sure organized crime figures and gang members love The Great Escape. 1
The tough script by James Clavell (The Fly) and W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle ... hmmmm) pushes all the right buttons to keep the suspense bubbling for the two hours before the big break happens. Richard Attenborough's speeches contain plenty of exposition but it's always the information we want to know at the right time, so it gets by. The escape preparations involve clever hijinks, schoolboy stunts and outrageous risk-taking that help acquaint us with the 20-odd main characters.
John Sturges by now was adept at quickly sketching male types and their relationships. Everyone here is defined by a function and embellished with character quirks. There are no shirkers, doubters or concientious objectors, just a potential nervous breakdown case or two. Diminuitive Angus Lennie goes bananas under the strain but the screenwriters also make that a distinct possibility for the physically strongest member of the team, Charles Bronson. James Garner breezes through as yet another virtuous Maverick-like crook. Sight-challenged forger and birdwatcher Donald Pleasance underscores the vulnerability of escapees - they aren't all men of action. They're just normal "guys" and we root for every last one of them. Unlucky fumblers like Nigel Stock and Gordon Jackson are mirrored by lucky plodder James Coburn. Talented escapee and cool customer David McCallum falls victim to his own best intentions, breaking the rules with an act of self-sacrifice.
The Great Escape carefully balances the scales between English and American heroism. The real escape scenario ended up being an all-British affair because the few American participants were relocated to another camp before the breakout was ready. 2 It's interesting that there wasn't an uproar over making Americans Garner and Steve McQueen the most gallant escapees; Errol Flynn's popularity was hurt when Warners' Objective Burma recast what was almost exclusively a British fight into an exclusively American one. The very similar escape film The Colditz Story was authentically all-British and realistically downplayed the adventure aspect once the escape was underway. John Sturges was looking for more than a moderate-range downbeat war tale. United Artists apparently wanted The Magnificent Seven Escape and wouldn't have complained if the prisoners wore Cowboy hats and had sexy female guards.
The American dominance of this American-financed story isn't insulting because their contribution is subsumed into the ensemble nature of the piece. Garner's character isn't always at the forefront and none of the stars hog the dialogue. John Leyton (of the later fantastic Great Escape spinoff Von Ryan's Express) and Lawrence Montaigne are definitely second-string players but are allowed to make their mark. Charles Bronson actually plays a Polish flyer for the RAF, which always makes me wonder why he wasn't simply shot by the Germans soon after capture. He has a fat role, unlike fellow Magnificent Seven alumnus James Coburn, stuck playing an unlikely Australian among real UK actors with authentic accents.
Steve McQueen Virgil Hilts is treated almost like a special effect. He makes showy entrances and spends most of the film on ice in solitary confinement, emerging only for fun bits like the Fourth of July. He definitely gets the nod for the coolest bits, sneaking to the barbed wire in broad daylight and actually scrapping with the guards. Because McQueen stays mostly locked up, he's never just another prisoner standing around in wide shots. When he's there, he's always front and center being the star. McQueen's brand of self-effacing scene stealing is at its best here; for sheer effectiveness, Escape is probably his best movie.
Most classic adventure movies have to ration out the big action scenes to keep the audience from getting bored. The Great Escape has lots of little bits in its first two thirds of running time, but their function is to wind up the spring good and tight so that the suspense of the prison break becomes unbearable. The advertising promised plenty of action, and most action fans will sit through anything if a whopping good fight is promised as a payoff.
Burnett and Clavell give their film a unique "action structure" that uses a strong visual contrast. The early prison scenes are mostly static, the characters frustrated and the settings claustrophobic. This reaches its extreme in the tunnel cave-ins where Charles Bronson almost goes nuts, but it's also carried in the overall design. The picture seems to get greyer and more enclosed as it goes along, playing a mild game of sensory deprivation. Then when dawn rises on the day after the escape, the beauty of the previously unseen German countryside is overwhelming. You'd think the escapees would forget to keep running, and stop to have a picnic.
Our sudden flight into the wide open spaces is exhilarating, and the imprisoned spirit of the escapees expands to fill it. All the emotions, hopes and frustrations are let loose as they evade capture in the best way they can. Since we feel the same way we're with the picture 100% - we say "yes!" to ourselves as James Garner attempts to steal an airplane, and Steve McQueen's motorcyle ego is equally welcome. This is adventure of the highest kind - we're constantly thinking, "What should they have done? What would I do?" The Great Escape fires the imagination; it makes us all feel like the foxes in a grand chase. 3
MGM's special edition of The Great Escape was done three years ago. Many fans will want to replace the flat older disc with this newer enhanced transfer. Although the picture is far sharper (you can read the expressions on faces when a dozen men are on the screen at the same time) this was apparently a tough one to restore, as color values shift more than we remember, and a few scenes even look a bit washed out. Viewers expecting a new-movie look, or the look of one of those ultra-enhanced discs may feel disappointed, as some shots have plenty of grain. Still, the added clarity is such a boon that the not-optimal encoding will probably be undetectable on all but the largest screens.
The extras include one of the best multi-participant commentaries I've heard. John Cork produced and the great film historian and researcher Steven Jay Rubin hosts, beautifully. His factual offerings (he's gone so far as to search for the film's and historical sites in Germany and Poland) provide the glue that links interview material from most of the stars, along with audio bites from participants like director Sturges who have passed away. Bruce Scivally co-produced, with beautifully-arranged commentary from James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance (who died in 1995 and was a real wartime POW), Judd Taylor, David Mccallum, assistant director Robert Relyea, art director Fernando Carrere, Steve McQueen's agent Hilliard Elkins, stunt rider Bud Ekins and Angus Lennie.
There's an active trivia track as in the previous MGM release Mad Max. If you've seen the film many times as I have and don't have someone new to show it to, I recommend listening to the commentary and reading along with the trivia track at the same time, as together they're completely involving. We learn that McQueen thought his absent father had become a Flying Tiger in the war, and that screenwriter Clavell wrote his novel King Rat after being encouraged by Sturges during the making of this film. 4
Coburn and McCallum talk about Jill Ireland and Charles Bronson and keep it all very civilized. Ireland was married to McCallum but after meeting Bronson on this picture, changed husbands.
There are several docus with overlapping subject matter, but they're sufficiently differentiated to please the fans who want more than can be delivered by the film and the Paul Brickhill original novel (which I devoured in High School). The longest show is a multi-part effort that really stands as a single item, done by the same people who do many Biography docus and AMC specials. Somewhat shorter and involving expensive recreations of events that rival a television production, The Untold Story is from Granada television and concentrates on the true postwar investigation of the murder of the fifty escapees. The real escape happened in snowy March and was nowhere near as pleasant as in the movie, as the ground was still covered in snow and the escapees sometimes had to give themselves up to keep from freezing. The level of detail is even finer, with surviving POWs recounting their dramatic stories. John Cork contributes a docu about one POW said to have been the basic inspiration for Virgil Hilts, Steve McQueen's character. This fellow not only survived the war, he flew again, learned jets and then became a staffer in the Apollo moon landing program.
Finally there are the usual galleries of photos and the exciting trailer obviously created by the trailermaker of The Magnificent Seven. It crams all the film's action into 3 minutes and is missing its narration track.
As the extras were prepared three years ago, none of the material reflects the deaths of Escape stars James Coburn or Charles Bronson. So don't be fooled when Bronson is described by James Garner as "retired."
The packaging has a pretty unpleasant-looking image of Steve McQueen on the cover, indicating that the wonderful mass-escape graphic of the original poster is no longer considered the film's selling point. A card sleeve opens up (with a velcro closure) to reveal more photos and a list of the featured cast.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Escape rates:
1. I can't help but think
that student rebels saw parallels with their situation and that of The Great Escape. In my
high school, vandalism became so prevalent that the school district finally broke down and surrounded
the buildings with a high chain link fence. As far as we were concerned, it wasn't to keep vandals out
but to keep us in - I even included a Great Escape parody in a High School assembly film I
made as a senior. Now, of course, all schools are designed or retrofitted like prisoner of war camps.
It's unintentional, but the psychology on today's campuses must be terrible, with everyone either carrying
weapons or afraid of them. Treat immature kids like dangerous criminals, and guess how they'll act?
3. Two notes here. There's a wonderfully droll English picture called
The One That Got
Away, which is sort of a reverse Colditz Story. German POW Hardy Kruger keeps slipping out
of various British lockups, getting recaptured only at the last moment of each escape attempt.
Like James Garner, he tries to steal an airplane and almost gets away with it. We empathize strongly
with the frustration of this German enemy, proving that these escape pictures are really Caper films.
On the subject of Steve McQueen, much is said in the extras about his insistence on injecting his
motorcycle skills into The Great Escape. It's really very restrained when you think of how a
contemporary megastar like
Tom Cruise warps his movies into ego-trips. All the same, we wonder why Hilts wastes so much time racing
back in forth in front of the fence, when he might have ditched his cycle and gone straight through the wires
instead. Too many wires? No cutter? It's all a fantasy, but our identification is such that we want to
will Hilts to make the right choice.
4. Another double. While working on 1941, our first production designer left
to pre-plan an enticing movie called Tiger Ten starring Steve McQueen. It was about the Flying Tigers and
was McQueen's personal dream project. Then McQueen got sick ...
King Rat is a POW movie far more grim than
Bridge on the River Kwai and the exact opposite of The Great Escape. In the far East, the prisoners
prey on each other and regularly work deals with their captors, which leads to crime, madness and a total breakdown