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The Great Escape stands alone among "fun" war movies. To date it's still the most successful at maintaining the basic truth of wartime 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 Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. United Artists showed the finished copy of Escape to an audience of real ex-POW's in England, and they loved it. The movie presents them as the most dashing, daring heroes of the 20th century!
The story gives a charismatic group of war captives an opportunity to act like juvenile delinquents É patriotic juvenile delinquents. The German Luftwaffe puts all of their troublesome Allied flyer prisoners into one camp, including Squadron Leader Bartlett, known as "Big X" (Richard Attenborough). He uses his select crew to organize three tunnels, while Capt. Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) tries to escape on his own, earning himself the name "The Cooler King." Bob Anthony Hendley (James Garner) blackmails guards and steals for needed items, and Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance) is a master forger. Bartlett's plan is to spring not just a few but hundreds of prisoners all at once, throwing German police into a panic and causing disruption in the high command. But it's a risky gambit -- the SS resents Luftwaffe control over these arrogant POWs. Bartlett has been warned that should he escape and be recaptured one more time, he'll be shot.
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 is the same as Paul Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange: a lot of rebellious defiance mostly gets a lot of good men killed. In both of these movies we celebrate the protagonists as they dare to defy their German captors. Richard Attenborough's hundreds of organized rebels 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. But the trial-by-escape with its risk and sacrifice was a personal challenge for men otherwise unable to fight: civilized defiance.
The Great Escape can be distinguished from 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, but 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, the elaborate escape scheme is as big a morale booster as building a bridge.
Escape is also unlike The Guns of Navarone, an adventure fantasy with heroic commandos performing 007-like feats of sabotage that singlehandedly change the course of the war. The prisoners may be played by big stars like James Garner or Steve McQueen, but they're not supermen. The enemies they face aren't silly guards easily fooled or ambushed. They don't have "bad guy" guns, the kind incapable of hitting 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 cynical Stalag 17 there are no deep-cover German agents among the prisoners to sow discord and paranoia. The defiant escapees' refusal to accept defeat is inspiring in itself. I'm sure organized criminals and gang members love The Great Escape. 1
The script by James Clavell (The Fly) and W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle ... hmmmm) keeps the suspense bubbling for two hours before the big break comes along. The escape preparations involve clever hi-jinks, schoolboy stunts and outrageous risk-taking that help acquaint us with the twenty-odd main characters.
Director John Sturges was adept at sketching male types and their relationships. Everyone here is defined by a function and embellished with character quirks, and nobody is cast against type. There are no shirkers, doubters or conscientious objectors, just a potential nervous breakdown case or two. Diminutive Angus Lennie goes bananas under the strain but the screenwriters also make the same fate a distinct possibility for the physically strongest member of the team, Charles Bronson. James Garner breezes through as yet another Maverick- like virtuous crook. Sight-challenged forger and birdwatcher Donald Pleasance underscores the vulnerability of the escapees. Most are just normal guys and we root for every last one of them. Their individual fates often depend on sheer luck. Fumblers like Nigel Stock and Gordon Jackson don't get the same breaks afforded the laid-back plodder James Coburn, who seems to lead a charmed life. Talented escapee and cool customer David McCallum falls victim to his own best intentions, breaking the rules with a rash, emotional act of self-sacrifice.
The Great Escape puts American stars at the forefront of what was actually an all-British affair. The few American POWs in the camp were relocated before the breakout was ready. 2 It's telling that there wasn't an uproar over making Americans Garner and Steve McQueen the most gallant escapees; Errol Flynn's popularity had been 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; without Hollywood stars it did not attract an American audience. The Mirisch Brothers and United Artists apparently wanted The Magnificent Seven Escape and wouldn't have complained if the prisoners wore Cowboy hats and had sexy German girlfriends.
The presence of the American stars isn't insulting because director Sturges emphasizes the ensemble nature of the story. James Garner's character isn't always at the forefront and none of the stars hog the dialogue. John Leyton (of the later, somewhat 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's Virgil Hilts is treated almost like a special effect. He makes showy entrances and is on hand for fun bits like the Fourth of July, yet spends most of the film on ice in solitary confinement. McQueen definitely scores the coolest bits, sneaking to the barbed wire in broad daylight and actually scrapping with the guards. Because Hilts mostly stays locked up, he's never just another prisoner standing around in wide shots. When he's there, he's always front 'n' center playing 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 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 payoff is promised.
Writers Burnett and Clavell use a strong visual contrast to give their film a unique "action structure". 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. When the sun rises on the day after the escape, the beauty of the German countryside is overwhelming. We almost expect the escapees to forget to keep running, and stop for a picnic.
Our sudden release 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 as best they can. We're with this sentiment 100% -- we say "yes!" to ourselves as James Garner steals an airplane. Steve McQueen's itch to get his hands on a motorcycle 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/Fox's Blu-ray of The Great Escape follows the last DVD special edition by nine years, adding a new HD transfer but offering no new extras to the already impressive stack of added value items. The transfer is a big improvement in image stability and granularity. The negative has faded just enough to interfere with the transfer, yet colors are consistently good. Actually, as 4/5ths of the picture plays in the drab, predominantly brown and blue barracks, the image overall is very good. Sharpness is down a bit, perhaps the result of digital filtering and tweaking.
At almost three hours the movie really needs an intermission. If it once had an official intermission card, I don't recall ever seeing one, even though the spot for the break is more than obvious. A black break of a few seconds has been added at the obvious pause point. The fade-out for this break looks a little suspicious....
Actually produced in 2001, the extras are all from the earlier DVD special edition. They make us miss the days of studio-produced added value extras for vintage films. The good multi-participant audio commentary includes interview material from many of the stars, among them participants who have since passed away. 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 all participate. Coburn and McCallum's talk about Jill Ireland and Charles Bronson is kept very civilized. Ireland was married to McCallum but changed husbands after meeting Bronson on this picture.
As the extras were prepared twelve years ago, none of the material reflects the passing of Escape stars James Coburn or Charles Bronson. So don't be fooled when Bronson describes James Garner as "retired." The one thing missing from the previous MGM release is the trivia track, which apparently takes too much encoding time in the new age of no-frills studio discs.
There's naturally some overlapping subject matter in several of the bonus docus, but they'll appeal to fans that want to know more, even readers of Paul Brickhill's excellent original novel (which I devoured in High School). The longest show is a multi-part effort that should be a single item. Somewhat shorter is Granada television's The Untold Story, which concentrates on the true postwar investigation of the murder of the fifty escapees. Its recreations of events look very expensive. The real escape was nowhere near as pleasant as in the movie. It happened in a cold March when the ground was still covered in snow. Many escapees had to give themselves up to avoid freezing to death. Another docu nominates one POW as a possible 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 preview trailer cut in the style of the trailer for The Magnificent Seven. It crams all the film's action into three minutes and is missing its narration track.
The packaging sports an awkward Photoshopped image of Steve McQueen, indicating that the star's big stunt scene has become the film's one selling point. The wonderful mass-escape graphic of the original poster (above) hasn't been used in quite a while. Don't become frustrated if using the 'menu' button on your remote doesn't get you to the extras -- on my player I almost ran out of patience before trying a hard-to-find 'pop-up' remote button. Fox has formatted this Blu-ray like one of its menu-less repeaters. The movie will cycle forever if left unattended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Escape Blu-ray rates:
1. Back 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 POW camps, or Maximum Security Prisons. The psychological effect 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, only to be recaptured at the last moment of each escape attempt. Like James Garner, he tries to steal an airplane and almost gets away with it. It's a true story. We identify 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, it does provide the film's strongest moment. We wish that Hilts had ditched his cycle and gone straight through the second fence. Too many wires? No cutter? It's all a fantasy, but our identification is such that we will Hilts to make the right choice.
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