Friday 21 December 2012

Movie Review: The Great Escape (1963)

An epic World War Two adventure, The Great Escape is based on an actual 1944 mass prison break from a German prisoner of war camp. Director and producer John Sturges goes big with an all-star cast and a running length close to three hours, and succeeds in delivering a stirring spectacle.

Tired of repeated and disruptive escapes by Allied prisoners, the German Luftwaffe build a new, theoretically escape-proof prison to hold captured air men. But by concentrating all the escape artists in one location, the Germans create a dream team of the best breakout men. Dedicated to tying up enemy forces by causing the biggest possible distraction, the prisoners organize themselves under the leadership of master escape plotter Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who devises a bold plan to liberate 250 prisoners by digging three tunnels (codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry) under the prison camp's fences and into the forest beyond.

Bartlett does not just want the men to escape, he wants to supply them with civilian uniforms and forged documents to give them the best chance of melding into the landscape and avoiding recapture, thus creating the need for a large German man-hunt that diverts critical resources from the front lines. His key escape team members include scrounger Hendley (James Garner), tunnel king Danny (Charles Bronson), master document forger Blythe (Donald Pleasence), manufacturer Sedgwick (James Coburn) and dispersal expert Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum). They get to work under the noses of the Germans guards, collecting the necessary equipment, digging three mammoth tunnels, and manufacturing, stealing or forging the necessary clothes, identity documents and maps to survive on the outside.

Also at the prison camp is brash American Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen), who independently insists on trying various solo escapes, all of which end in his recapture and incarceration in the solitary confinement "cooler", where he kills time bouncing a baseball off the wall. With the Germans beginning to suspect that something is up and then discovering one of the tunnels, Bartlett finally recruits Hilts to help in the great escape plan, as the men target a moonless night for the mass break-out.

Based on the 1950 book by Paul Brickhill, who lived through the real event at Stalag Luft III, The Great Escape faithfully recreates the escape details while creating composite characters inspired by actual escapees. Sturges dedicates the first two hours to life at the prison camp and the gradual development and implementation of the escape plan. The deliberate pacing provides plenty of time for character development and delving into the breakout details.

From the gallery of superstars, Donald Pleasence as Colin Blythe emerges as the most memorable, a tweedy intelligence officer who chose to board the wrong flight and ended up as a prisoner of war, now entrusted with creating forged documents for 250 escapees. Blythe starts to lose his eyesight, and in one of many examples of poignant human-scale stories triumphing in a grand film, James Garner's Bob Hendley takes Blythe under his wing as the escape approaches its climax.

Hendley himself is a memorably smooth prisoner, able to scrounge up the most difficult of items (including a camera) mostly by getting the psychological upper hand over the prison guards. Charles Bronson gets one of the other leading roles as Danny the tunnel king, a grimly determined expert tunnel digger dedicated to the hard physical labour until confronted by sudden claustrophobia after one too many cave-ins.

Steve McQueen adds undoubted star power and charisma, plus he gets the showy and prolonged motorcycle chase scene and a rightfully famous motorcycle jump courtesy of stuntman Bud Ekins. But there is equally little doubt that McQueen's role as Hilts is almost artificially appended to inject a dose of cool for American audiences. The actual escape was a predominantly British, Canadian and Australian affair, with limited involvement by any Americans.

The final one third of the movie is dedicated to the escape and its aftermath, and while the drama and tension increase to exquisite levels, here Sturges and the screenwriters (James Clavell and W.R. Burnett are credited, but others also contributed) also expand on the liberties. In addition to Hilts' mythical motorcycle chase, another fictional embellishment has Hendley and Blythe taking to the skies in a light aircraft. But the movie does gather up the strands of reality in portraying the number of escapees who actually made it all the way to freedom, as well as the tragedy that befell others.

Adding immeasurably to the impact of the film is the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme music, addictive in its nimble military march simplicity and setting an enduring standard for war movie soundtracks. The Great Escape is great movie-making, Hollywood at its best celebrating history with just a dash of artificial horsepower.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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