The Great Escape stands alone among war movies; to date it's still the most successful effort that maintains a basic truth to its events while embellishing them with irresistable 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 takes a WW2 story about defeat and makes it seem like a victory. No matter how it's made to look, the tale of the mass escape from the German prisoner of war camp really chalks up 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 didn't have any big effect on the winning of the war. 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 get free. 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 we never question motives. Poor Colonel Nicholson faces watching his troops die of sickness and hopelessness under brutal Japanese abuse, while James Donald's fliers are treated reasonably well, and the 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 also isn't like 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. As examined in the finest detail in this special edition's large selection of docus, the true schemes, dodges and con games used by the prisoners to carry out a huge tunneling operation are a caper far bigger than what's usually required to rob a bank. They're also entertaining and funny, and credible enough so that even when exaggerated, 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 is probably 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 a lot of exposition but it's always the information we want to know at the right time, go it gets by. Since most of the escape preparations involve clever hijinks, schoolboy stunts or outrageous risk-taking, it's all entertaining and helps us get to know the 20-odd main characters in action.
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, only a few potential nervous breakdown cases. Diminuitive Angus Lennie goes bananas under the strain, but the screenwriters shrewdly make that a distinct possibility for the physically strongest member of the team too, Charles Bronson. James Garner gets the chance to be a 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 the fudging of history to make the most gallant escapees Garner and Steve McQueen Americans; Errol Flynn's popularity received a loud hit in WW2 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, and so was United Artists, who 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, but they 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's got a fat role, unlike fellow Magnificent Seven alumnus James Coburn, stuck playing an unlikely Australian among real UK actors with authentic accents.
Steve McQueen 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. But more importantly, because McQueen's Virgil Hilts stays mostly locked up, he doesn't have to be 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, The Great 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 mostly they serve 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 uniquie "action structure" that uses a strong visual contrast. The early prison scenes are mostly static, the characters frustrated and the settings claustrophobic. This comes to extremes in the tunnel cave-ins, where Charles Bronson almost goes nuts, but it's also carried over in the design. The picture seems to get greyer and 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 stop to have a picnic, and forget to keep running.
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 foxes in a grand chase. 3
MGM's special edition of The Great Escape was done three years ago. The transfer is good and many fans will want to replace the flat older disc with this newer 16:9 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 some shots 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 indetectable 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 real film and historical sites in Germany and Poland) provide the glue to link interview material from most of the stars of the show, 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's several docus with overlapping subject matter on the disc, 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. It's very good and well-researched, and has to be nearly an hour long. 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's 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 with identical art, front and back goes over the keep case, but 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 must be terrible on today's campuses, 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.
He tries to steal an airplane as well, 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 to 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 of morale. <