Tuesday, July 4, 2017

#2,376. The Great Escape (1963)

Directed By: John Sturges

Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough

Tagline: "From a barbed-wire camp- to a barbed-wire country!"

Trivia: Donald Pleasence had actually been a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II, who was shot down, became a prisoner of war and was tortured by the Germans

In an effort to lure Americans away from their TV sets, Hollywood produced an inordinate number of “big” movies in the 1950’s and ‘60s, epics that boasted larger-than-life characters, exotic settings, a huge stable of stars, and running times that approached (and occasionally exceeded) the 3-hour mark.

Focusing initially on biblical and historical epics, the studios soon applied this new way of thinking to other genres as well, including the war film. Fresh on the heels of 1961’s The Guns of Navarone and ‘62s The Longest Day, both of which featured an enormous cast, plenty of heart-pounding action, and some top-notch battle sequences, director John Sturges and his crew took the real-life story of a mass escape from a German POW camp and turned it into yet another large-scale motion picture.

And while it doesn’t have as many action-oriented scenes as either The Guns of Navarone or The Longest Day, 1963’s The Great Escape is every bit as thrilling as its predecessors.

In an effort to prevent escapes, The German Luftwaffe has built a brand new high-security POW camp and filled it with their most uncooperative prisoners, aka enemy flyboys who have repeatedly tried to burrow or climb their way to freedom. 

One in particular, American pilot Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen), made 17 escape attempts in the past, while British Squadron Leader Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) has masterminded a handful of big-scale breakouts. In fact, Bartlett has become such a thorn in the Germans’ side that the Gestapo has promised to execute him if he ever tries to escape again.

But such threats mean nothing to Bartlett, who intends to put the Nazi’s new camp to the test by staging the biggest escape he’s ever attempted: 250 men at once! With plans to dig three tunnels simultaneously (nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”), Bartlett knows that, if he’s going to pull off this seemingly impossible feat, he’ll need all the help he can get. 

So he enlists a number of his compatriots to help out, including flight Lt. Hendley (James Garner), who can track down the materials they’ll need; Lt. Velinski (Charles Bronson), aka the “Tunnel King”, who has already dug his way out of numerous camps; Lt. Blythe (Donald Pleasance), a master forger; Lt. Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum), assigned to get rid of the dirt that’s sure to pile up once the digging starts; and Australian officer Sedgwick (James Coburn), who, among other things, constructs an air pump that will allow those working in the tunnels to remain there for hours on end. 

As for Captain Hilts, who has already tried to escape several times on his own (each attempt earning him a stint in solitary confinement), he initially balks at the idea of a mass breakout, but figures he has nothing to lose by pitching in and helping any way he can.

After months of preparation, the Allied prisoners are more than ready to leave their Nazi captors behind. But even if Bartlett does manage to sneak out 250 men, how many will actually make it to the border before they’re recaptured?

Though set primarily inside a WWII POW camp, The Great Escape is still one hell of an action/adventure film. Not 20 minutes after they’ve arrived at the new camp, a half dozen prisoners, including Velinski and Sedgwick, try to escape, while Hilts, who tests the guard towers by crossing into a restricted area, incurs the wrath of commandant Von Luger (Hannes Messemer), who sentences him to 20 days in the cooler.

Of course, the real excitement is in the final act (the escape), but thanks to director Sturges and writers James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, even those early scenes dedicated to putting Bartllett’s plan into motion maintain a consistent level of tension. Along with the constant fear that the Germans might stumble upon one of the tunnels during a routine inspection, there are the personal dramas that keep our eyes glued to the screen, such as the revelation that Velinski suffers from claustrophobia, or that Blythe’s deteriorating eyesight may force Bartlett and the others to leave him behind.

It's moments such as these, handled wonderfully by the movie’s all-star cast, that make The Great Escape so intriguing, and the camaraderie that builds among its characters ensures we’re rooting for these guys every step of the way. So while other war films may have more action than The Great Escape, very few are as much fun to watch.

1 comment:

Dell said...

I'm on an island with this one, I'm afraid. I found it way too drawn out in an attempt to justify the existence of every character in its massive cast. The last hour was fantastic. If those first two hours had been compressed into one, I would've liked it much better.