Saturday, February 11, 2012

100 Movies - No. 44: The Great Escape

44. The Great Escape (1963)
Adventure, Drama, History, 172 minutes
Directed by John Sturges
Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough

The Great Escape runs almost three hours, but it's never boring. Don't think of it as a traditional war film as there are no battle scenes of any kind. This looks at how people dealt with captivity in a German POW camp. Although it's based on true events, there is far too much humor for us to take the story completely seriously.

It's meant as pure entertainment and features one of the strongest ensemble casts in movie history, featuring the likes of Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, Nigel Stock and Gordon Jackson.

It's the duty of every officer to attempt to escape or force the enemy to deploy a ridiculous amount of resources to prevent escapes. The Allied airmen perform that task to their best of their abilities. We see seven people attempt escape in the opening 20 minutes, but these are clumsy efforts meant to test the enemy.

Once that is over, the commanding officers devise a more serious plan. This is a fascinating segment in which we are shown how every man has a part to play, according to his expertise. The group decides to begin three escape tunnels and has several men experienced in that area. While that sounds easy, it's a logistical nightmare. Wood is needed to prevent tunnels from collapsing, so the group takes planks from every possible source. The dirt has to be disposed of and presents another problem. If the escape succeeds, the prisoners will need clothes and documentation to evade capture. They will need to be able to pass as German or French. We are shown how the group comes together and acquires all the necessary materials.

Despite setbacks, a number of prisoners eventually escape. This presents another problem because they can't all use the same escape route. Some travel by train, some by river, and others by cycle, plane or motorcycle.

The most appealing thing about The Great Escape is the sense of camaraderie and seeing how well the group functions as a unit. The Allied commander and the German Kommandant treat each other with respect. It's accepted that the prisoners will try to escape, but there's a sense of honor between the two sides. The Germans would likely attempt similar escapes if the roles were reversed.

Although the humor does take away from the serious nature of the situation, I don't think any disrespect is intended. The movie is dedicated to those who lost their lives. The story works because of the charisma of the cast and the pacing of the events as they unfold. I'm not a fan of war films focusing on battles and glory, but I do appreciate a look behind the scenes at the psychological aspects and group dynamics. That's where The Great Escape shines.

June 5, 2013 addition:

The Blu-ray presentation is extremely weak and disappointing. The colors are generally drab and washed out, and fine detail is rarely seen, even in close-ups. I would normally urge anyone to upgrade to Blu-ray if they like the movie, but I have to wonder whether a better version will be released in a few years. Some scenes look just as bad as the DVD. I see this as a wasted opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film. MGM needs to remaster it as soon as possible, and offer free upgrades to anyone who owns this initial Blu-ray release. The special features should be on a separate disc to maximize the quality of a film which runs almost three hours. Even though Amazon is charging just $9.99 at the time of writing, I can't recommend this poor presentation. 

If you like The Great Escape:

There are so many movies about World War II and they range from blockbusters such as The Dirty Dozen to ambitious efforts like The Bridge on the River Kwai. I recommend the latter for fans of The Great Escape as it focuses more on the psychological aspects than action. One of my favorite escape stories is Papillon, which also stars Steve McQueen and is based on a true story.

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