Wednesday, June 2, 2010

WWII #5: The Great Escape (1963)

"THE GREAT ESCAPE" (John Sturges, 1963)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 172 mins.

With that jaunty Elmer Bernstein score and seemingly harmless dispatch of Luftwaffe armed guards, The Great Escape ('63) is one of the most fun, tranquil and easygoing prisoner-of-war movies ever made, largely attributing to its cuddly, amiable likability across generations. Even at a long-winded 172 minutes, the joys of the film lie in its breathtaking international cast and the anatomy of the escape.

Director John Sturges, once a master of the western genre, said about this film that, "it was the reason that we won the war." Such a statement may appear folly, but the dogged resiliency, cooperation and intolerance for idleness presented in The Great Escape certainly make a compelling argument in his favor.

Based on the true-life novel by Paul Brickhill, the film was only made because of Sturges' insistence that the story would be treated with utmost respect. The film's largest embellishment - the increased role of an American pilot (Steve McQueen) in the escape - is likely the film's greatest strength.

In reality, the escape (or for some, attempted escape) was a predominantly British undertaking, with any American involvement minimal, but the character of Captain Virgil Hilts (McQueen), with his impressively determined track record and disassociation with the British officer known as "Big X" (the wonderful Richard Attenborough) provides the backbone for the film.

Rounding out the star-studded cast are James Garner, James Donald, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Donald Pleasance with the only surprise (other than the fact that McQueen's performance is surprisingly rife with ironic, comedic timing) is that Yul Brynner didn't sign on to play a German Luftwaffe guard.

Although a bout of claustrophobia at an inopportune moment and a pervasive coat of cartoonish jesting threaten to take us out of the proceedings from time-to-time, once that familiar theme kicks in again over the closing credits, the film has surely and suddenly won us over. [B+]


  1. I absolutely adore this movie. It's an amazing combination of wit, fun, and darkness (more so upon repeat viewings knowing the impending result). Still, I love how its about characters who keep their heads high through everything, because they have each other.

  2. I'm not as in love with it as you or everybody else who's seen it, but watching it for the second time, it felt new and I got sucked in all over again. It really is an irresistible movie in many ways - lot of fun.