The Great Escape (1963): United States – directed by John Sturges
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some violence, intense situations
The Great Escape is a bona fide classic, a film based on a true story of courage, resilience, and prisoners of war. An all-star cast, perfectly pitched, combine with skillful direction and pacing to make the war epic a joy to watch again and again. The story has been condensed from the real-life efforts of Major Roger Bushell (named Roger Bartlett in the film, played by Richard Attenborough who would go on to mastermind genetically crafted dinosaurs in Jurassic Park [review here]) and some of the characters have been combined and consolidated.
Roger Bartlett is young, handsome, and headstrong. He is the last of the Allied prisoners that Nazi S.S. officers escort to their new state-of-the-art prison center. After months of spending a great deal of money and resources attempting to contain a variety of Allied personnel, the Nazi’s have decided to build an inescapable prison for the worst offenders. This Luftwaffe base, intended to be for captured Air Force personnel, is headed by Kommandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer), a genteel and sympathetic German officer. He has been grounded and understands the pain of his charges, who also won’t be able to see the skies again during the war. The way the film deals kindly and understandably with von Luger provides a sense of humanity to both sides.
The S.S. officers are not so sympathetic, and it is fortunate that they are not involved with the running of the prison camp. This provides Bartlett and the others a chance to craft an ingenious and ballsy plan to break out of the camp. Bartlett’s aim, however, is not to merely escape from the camp: he aims to unleash 150 POW’s on the German countryside to keep the German’s busy, financially and resource-wise, for a good long time.
The rest of the camp soon understands Bartlett’s ultimate motives. Each one of them has a key part in the plan and displays almost superhero-like skills. Hendley (James Garner) is a master scrounger, capable of acquiring steel or a camera, depending on the team’s needs. Danny (Charles Bronson) is a master tunneler with an understandable fear of small spaces; his desire to be free compels him to dig 17 tunnels before venturing out underneath the ultimate imprisonment camp. A small, weak Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance, before becoming a staple of 1970’s horror films) is a master forger, capable of crafting numerous fake ID’s for the escaping prisoners. The Australian Sedgwick (James Coburn, with a generally convincing Australian accent for the iconic American actor) is a manufacturer. Ives (Angus Lennie) is a small Irishman who is getting closer to his breaking point, and his close companion is the incorrigible Capt. Hilts (Steve McQueen), an irascible Yank committed to escaping at all costs.
The first two hours detail the preparation and creation of multiple tunnels out of the camp, a painstaking and meticulous task. Fortunately, director John Sturges has the necessary skill to make the potentially boring tunneling exciting. One of his most useful assets is a strong set of characters: despite having so many major players, Sturges expertly realizes each of them to imbue the story with a realistic and humane quality. Experienced acting by an amazing cast doesn’t hurt, either.
The last 50 minutes portray the actual escape and dispersion of the prisoners across Germany. As in real life, only three of the 76 remained undiscovered; fifty were recaptured and murdered while the remainder were returned to the camp. This final act ranges from sad to thrilling, particularly in the film’s most memorable scene. Hilts attempts to escape using his strength, commandeering a motorcycle and making a daring trek across the German countryside, with Switzerland barely in sight.
Hilts is the emotional and patriotic core of the film. He never acquiesces to the presumed authority of his Nazi guards and resolutely re-enters the cooler with his trusty baseball time and again, wiling away his days in solitude. Over the years his attitude has become representative of the macho American. Just like Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke four years later, Hilts maintains a stubborn refusal to lie down and give up, instead preferring to battle on regardless of impossible odds or personal injury.
The story is wonderful, the cast impressive, and the cohesion of the two nearly a miracle. The Great Escape does not presume to be anything more than an inspirational story based on actual events populated with real characters. There is not necessarily a greater purpose or message behind the film, and it never pretends to be great intellectual art. But The Great Escape is finely crafted and unfailingly enjoyable. It will forever remain a classic of American cinema and a symbol of the American spirit, even if only three of the two hundred-odd men at the camp were Yankees.