Yet the main thing that sticks in my mind about wanting to see the movie comes from working at a video store in high school. While shelving tapes in the Action/War section, I'd always look at the cover of The Great Escape. It was a double-tape, a sure epic, and on the box was McQueen's face before a blue sky. His expression was so defiant that I hardly noticed him tangled in barbed wire at the bottom. His look said, "Whatever's going on down there doesn't matter. Look up here, Mac. This is how I really feel."
Prior to seeing The Great Escape, I had no idea that it was based on a true story. It was adapted from the book of the same name by Paul Brickhill. Brickhill was a POW at Stalag Luft III, which was run by the Luftwaffe (the German air force). In his book, Brickhill provides a detailed account of the planning, preparation, and actual mass escape from the Nazi prison camp. Much of the film was fictionalized, however. Some characters were composites of real people, and the Americans (McQueen and James Garner) were given a more prominent role in the film than their real-life counterparts.
These inventions don't undermine the actual historical events since the act of adaptation is about transformation. What works as history or a piece of non-fiction doesn't always translate well cinematically, especially when you want to exploit the audacity of the escape plot. In the end, John Sturges made a break-neck, engrossing escape film that stands alongside other classic WWII adventures, like the The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.
The old line is that they don't make them like they used to, and they really don't make movies like The Great Escape anymore. Even though it's three hours long, it shoots out like a two-hour movie. There are few if any places where The Great Escape slows down. Almost all of our characters get dumped in the high-security camp after the opening credits. We get the situation right quick and up front: all of the best Royal Air Force escapees and a handful of Allied escapees are here in one place -- "All our rotten eggs in one basket" says the camp's commandant.
Just 15 minutes in, and we already have our first brazen escape attempt. What it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in enthusiasm. None of these repeat offenders wastes time trying to get the hell out because getting the hell out is what they're best at. The pace really doesn't let up from there to the end. The mastermind of the big escape plan, Roger Bartlett (Sir Richard Attenborough), shows up soon after and right away gets talking about a big breakout: 250 men, major tunneling, with civilian clothes and forged papers for every one of them. A job this ambitious is the work of an inspired tactician whose only goal is to muck things up for the Nazis as best as he can.
It's apparent that we're not just watching crafty soldiers. We're watching some of the finest practitioners of WWII escapology. This prison camp to them is just a more complicated straitjacket or milk churn to Houdini. (Fittingly, the Glenn Lovell biography of Sturges is titled Escape Artist.) There's a way out, a spectacular one even, and they will find it.
Each member of this all-star cast fills out their specialist roles. Garner's charismatic Hendley helps procure items for fellow prisoners, from snacks to smokes to pickaxes. Every moment he's on screen, I had the Rockford Files theme song honking around in my head. His bunkmate is the timid Blythe played by Donald Pleasence, a specialist in forgeries. There's Danny played by Charles Bronson, a skilled digger whose accent is some goulash of central and eastern Europe; and James Coburn's manufacturer Sedgwick, whose Australian accent is like Dick Van Dyke doing cockney. Attenborough's Bartlett is the brains of the operation. Cool, collected, concerned with the men he's liberating as much as the plot he's hatched.
And McQueen's star-making character Hilts? Hilts is the Platonic form of Steve mother f**king McQueen. He gets caught doing his rogue escape attempts and goes into solitary with his baseball and worn out glove. Rather than sulk, he passes the time bouncing his ball off the ground and the wall and catching it with ease; bouncing and catching, bouncing and catching, ca-clug thup, ca-clug thup. He's just waiting to get out so he can try to escape again. You dirty Ratzis aren't breaking him, and most of the camp isn't going to break either.
It's this forward-moving, indefatigable fighting spirit that keeps the film speeding along. There is an absolute dedication to the mission exhibited by each of the men. As they dig their escape tunnels, they invent ways of disposing of dirt, they find ways of conning guards, they create diversions and signals. Just when the plan seems to work perfectly, there's a problem that requires creativity, quick thinking, or just plain courage to solve. Every time an obstacle presents itself, we're worried, we intrigued, and we await a moment of temporary relief to the tension only to realize the tension is ongoing and had been the entire time. That's why we're paying attention and that's why three hours can seem like two. We get lost in the zeal of escape rather than the tics of a clock.
It's teamwork, it's the human spirit at its best when faced with dire situations, it's rugged masculinity. There's no dilly-dallying, no sob stories, no lengthy talks of returning home. There's no squabbling or pettiness between the prisoners. Home and freedom is on everyone's minds, and instead of talking about it, they get to work trying to make it happen. A little less conversation, a lot more action -- all TCB for the RAF and company. And what's more, the film is funny. There are moments of welcome comedy, whether in Garner's goofy swagger or the few well-placed touches of slapstick. It's that levity that lends the more serious moments of the film extra weight.
I think if The Great Escape was remade today, the film would be a glum and gritty affair. There'd be an obsession with explicit character arcs, and each individual would have these bland personal dramas play out on screen to the detriment of the escape plot. Hilts would probably talk about his old man in Iowa giving him the glove and ball, and Danny would wistfully mention the old country every few minutes as a tiresome point of comparison, like some ancestor of Yakov Smirnoff -- "In London is one way maybe, but in the old country..."
A rivalry would probably be invented between Hilts and Bartlett, with Bartlett always referring to Hilts in the second-person plural: "You Yanks do things rather oddly, if I do say." Blythe would try to catch a pet bird. I just picture awful affectations added to characters because some producer or studio hack wouldn't believe enough in the strength of the material. They'd want to add meaningless garnish to the plate until the lean yet satisfying meal was lost.
None of those things would add texture to the film. You'd wind up with a different movie -- probably more serious verging on grim, probably a lot more cliché, and nowhere near as good. The score wouldn't be worth whistling, and you know they'd foul up the powerful simplicity of the ending. They don't make them like this anymore -- I don't expect a studio would have the brains to get out of the way and let it happen.
Mostly, though, you'd lose the personality of the stars, and that's what really drives The Great Escape. Sturges was a great director of action pictures, and where he excels here (like in The Magnificent Seven) is letting the actors be themselves. And that's one of the most amazing things about The Great Escape: everyone gets to be who they are, and yet everyone's still part of the team. No scene stealing, no apparent egos in conflict. It's just a job to get done, and they do it, and when they do it, they've got that steely, concentrated look just like McQueen on the box art -- defiant, hard at work; tireless, like Houdini at the buckles and clasps: the look of the escape artist, already liberated.
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