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   THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) 

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CAST
Steve McQueen
Richard Attenborough
James Garner
James Donald
Donald Pleasance
Charles Bronson
James Coburn
Hannes Messemer
David McCallum
Angus Lennie

DIRECTED BY
John Sturges

PURCHASE


DVD




Original Novel




Score




Time: 169 mins.
Rating: PG
Genre: Action/Drama/WWII

Academy Award for Best Film Editing.


Even though I'm not generally a big fan of war movies, THE GREAT ESCAPE is just one of those classic films I had to see. Based on a true story of indomitable spirit and daring heroism, this was sure to be a flick of a different sort. With an all-star cast, including the hunky duo of Steve McQueen and James Garner, I was sure I wouldn't be disappointed. There's nothing like a little eye candy to make a war film more palatable. I, like most women, don't care for the battles and blood of most military flicks, so I was pleased to see none of it here. That's not to say that everyone lives – it is war after all – but at least they're not blown into little bits, which is a plus. Though somewhat long, the film is gripping, drawing you in slowly and refusing to let go.

The film opens with the arrival of Allied POW's to the newest prison camp built just for them. In the Germans infinite wisdom, they decide to populate this state-of-the-art facility with the cream of the crop – those prisoners deemed an extreme flight risk. It's sort of like an adult camp for wayward boys. All of the men sent here, mostly British with a sprinkling of Aussie and American, have only one thing on their minds...escape. As officers, it's their duty to try to break out as often as possible in order to create continued chaos within the German Army. If troops are needed to recapture escaped soldiers, they won't be killing their compatriots on the front. Or so the logic goes. Roger Bartlett (Attenborough) is the ringleader of this underground movement (forgive the pun). He's been a thorn in the German's side ever since he was captured. This time, however, his plan is much, much bigger. The Germans haven't seen anything yet.

Roger knows this attempt will most likely be his last, so he decides to go out in style. Instead of just helping 5 or 10 men escape, they're going to liberate 250. An escape plan of this size and scale has never been attempted before, but the men stand behind Roger and quickly get to work. With the help of Lt. Hendley (Garner), the Scrounger, they manage to get everything they need for the operation to succeed – clothing, digging materials and most importantly, actual documents to forge their fake papers. The rest of the group spends their time digging three tunnels – named Tom, Dick and Harry. It's dangerous and clausterphobic work, but they make progress, mainly due to the unwitting efforts of Captain Hilts (McQueen), an American determined to set himself free. When he's not sitting out a month in solitary, he's either planning an escape or on the run. No one tries to stop him, since his efforts keep the heat off of their little project.


"Kommodant Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape."

When they are finally able to tell Hilts their plan – they need his help to gather vital information about the transportation options in the area – he initially refuses, calling them crazy. However, it quickly becomes clear, that without them, he's never going to get out of Germany. As you would expect, there are some setbacks to the operation, but the men continue on, resolute in their efforts to pull off the biggest escape in history. Though they plan well, nothing comes easy. A significant number actually are able to get out, but not the entire group. Regardless, it sends the Germans into a tizzy as they try to recapture the escaped prisoners. Our heroes employ every method available to them to get away, from train to boat to bicycle. Some are more successful than others. A few reach freedom, a handful are returned to the camp and some meet their maker sooner than they hoped. However, in the end, despite the loss of life, their plan was a success and their spirits remain undaunted. As long as they breathe, they will try to escape.

THE GREAT ESCAPE is a brilliantly crafted film with action, drama, humor and suspense intertwining to create a memorable cinema experience. The all-star, international cast led by McQueen and Garner is a melting pot of talent and experience. All are amazing. Each carving out a little moment for themselves that distinguishes them from the crowd and endears them in your heart. From the first moment they enter the camp, you are on their side, willing them to succeed in escaping. Though McQueen and Garner are the biggest names in this picture, this is not a star vehicle. McQueen spends much of the film offscreen in solitary confinement, but still manages to be heroic. Apparently, he didn't want to be the main character since his two previous films, both World War II based, did not perform very well at the box office and he couldn't stomach a third riding on his shoulders. His part is crafted for maximum emotion with minimal effort. His presence is felt throughout the film even though he only appears in about a third of it. That's star power.

Attenborough provides the film's determination, Garner and Coburn, much of what is considered the film's comic relief, and Bronson gives a powerful turn as the Tunnel King, a man compelled to dig despite his immense fear of enclosed spaces. Until recently, I've written off Bronson as a second-rate action hero, having never seen any of his early performances, which are immensely impressive. His character here embodies our fears for the men as the dig their way out. We relate to him because, despite his terror, he presses on. Something we all hope we would be able to do as well. He's also the only prisoner who shows weakness and fear. His character brings humanity to the group, allowing the others to be strong and resilient without seeming like cartoons. I find it unfortunate after watching him here and in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, that his career took the turn it did. He's much better than his later roles imply.

The only thing I can really complain about with this film is the length. It just felt a little too long, though I can't think of anything I would cut out. The art direction, cinematography and editing are superb. The score, a classic, is one you've heard before, probably without knowing its origin, and is essential to the success of this film. It's everything movie music should be – complimentary to the action and emotion onscreen without ever being obtrusive or annoying. Plus, it's damn catchy. The story, though not incredibly deep, is engaging and intelligently written. It works because it's focused on its topic, unlike recent epic films that seem to think they have to appeal to all audiences, thereby diluting the power of their story. If a film is well-made, despite its genre, people will go. The enduring popularity of films like this are proof of that. If you haven't seen THE GREAT ESCAPE, you're truly missing one of cinema's most entertaining films.



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