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The Great Escape: A Classic Revisited

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The Great Escape, Film Review

The Great Escape: Steve McQueen, World War Two and the Scene with the Motorcycle

Steve McQueen in The Great EscapeBased on the true story of the largest prison break in history, and starring Steve McQueen, the WWII drama The Great Escape is one of the most well-known classics of all time, yet, these days it might also might be one of the least widely seen. Very few people I know have seen this movie, and I recently discovered that many who say they’ve seen it, are probably lying. A few months ago, the UK video rental service Lovefilm conducted an informal survey to see what percentage of people had actually seen the classic movies they claimed to have seen. Apparently, 30% of people polled had lied about seeing The Godfather, and 4% of people polled had lied about seeing The Great Escape.

In regards to The Great Escape, this is something I can understand, though maybe not condone— it is, after all, nearly three hours long. However, I suspect that what puts most people off isn’t the length; it’s the idea of the length. Nobody wants to sit down and watch a three-hour war movie. However, my theory is that if you start watching The Great Escape without actually knowing how long it is, you’ll be instantly hooked and have no choice but to sit glued to the screen for the entire film.

This was my experience when I first saw it; I recently revisited it to see if it was still as awesome as I remembered. The short answer is yes, it was. Released on July 4, 1963, The Great Escape takes place in 1944, and features a large cast of A-list actors including— in addition to the aforementioned Steve McQueen— Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Garner, James Coburn and Richard Attenborough, all playing either British or American prisoners of war. The film begins as the captured officers are brought to Stalag Luft North, a fictional German POW camp in which they are being corralled as punishment for their all previous escape attempts from other camps.

James Garner and Donald Pleasance in The Great EscapeThe central premise is a simple one, and is set up quickly: the Germans hope that by keeping “all the rotten eggs in one basket,” they can minimize escapes. British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) immediately squashes these hopes by informing the camp Kommandant “Colonel von Luger” (Hannes Messemer) that each man present considers it his sworn duty to attempt to escape in order to tie up as many German troops and resources as possible.

It is at this point that the film settles into its slow, but satisfying pace. Every attempted escape is documented, from the smaller token efforts like blending in among a crowd of Russian laborers or hiding in the back of a truck to the real, much larger attempt: the digging of three underground tunnels which will evacuate a total of 250 men. Captain Hilts (McQueen), one of the few Americans in the camp, is at first not even a part of this plan, instead preferring to try and break out on his own, but after the death of a friend he becomes a valuable part of the tunneling effort. Each of the men has a specific role to play— forger, tunneler, scrounger, etc.— and all of their efforts to fool the Germans play out in entertaining detail. As the film progresses and the various tunnels are discovered and/or cave in, tension rises and the men in the camp slowly start to crack under the pressure.

All of the performances are very strong; the most compelling performance is that of Steve McQueen, who is famous for doing most of his own driving and motorcycle stunts, yet also has the charisma and acting talent to easily pull off leading man status. However, McQueen doesn’t carry this movie all by himself. The film is long enough so that each character gets a good amount of screen time, and each actor is able to create a distinctively different character that’s hard not to feel emotionally invested in; Richard Attenborough’s Bartlett and Donald Pleasance’s Lt. Blythe, in particular, are standouts. Most of the Brits in the movie were stage-trained, so although there are some action sequences, The Great Escape is always first and foremost about the characters, not the shooting and chasing. Even the majority of the Germans are portrayed as humans and not cackling cartoon Nazis.

John Sturges’s direction is straightforward and linear, which serves the slow pacing of the film well; all of the tunnel scenes are wonderfully claustrophobic without seeming unrealistic, and the tension of the escape scene itself strikes a perfect balance. The few faster scenes, like the motorcycle chase, are pleasing both in terms of adrenaline and aesthetics.

Steve McQueen in The Great EscapeThe recreated POW camp is very realistic as well, but once the action moves outside the camp (there’s at least a good hour of outside action), the scenery is even more impressive. If this film were made today, it would probably be shot in Canada, but The Great Escape was actually filmed in Germany, which is why the German countryside looks so real. This shift from inside the camp to outside is a large factor in maintaining viewer interest through the last third of the movie; this is not a film that purposely drags in order to create a bigger-seeming payoff at the end, and at no point does the narrative flow become stagnant.

As with most war dramas, there are some light-hearted moments, but this is not an entirely feel-good film. It takes a 1960s attitude toward the war in that it doesn’t take everything incredibly seriously and lay on the drama with a trowel, but it also never allows the viewer to forget that this was a real, concrete event that had happened less than twenty years previously. The last moments are fairly wrenching, belying the jaunty theme music that plays at the beginning of the movie, but if you stick with it through the whole three hours you’ll find that The Great Escape is worth the experience. In conclusion, totally awesome. If you’re someone who’s too embarrassed to admit that you haven’t seen all the classics, this film is a good place to start actually watching them— along with The Godfather, of course, but that kind of goes without saying.

Sarah Alender is a Contributor to The Free George

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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