Movie Review: The Great Escape

Due to time constraints I wasn’t able to enjoy yet another Band of Brothers marathon over the Memorial Day weekend. But all was not lost as I finally got to catch a viewing of The Great Escape, which I had never seen before. And I’m pleased to say that for the most part, the film’s reputation as a classic is well-earned.

The Great Escape (1963)

The basic premise of the movie is thus: It’s World War II and the German High Command, tired of dealing with the expense and effort involved with keeping some of their most escape-prone POWs imprisoned, has designed a newer and supposedly better prison camp (Stalag Luft III) where it sends the craftiest Allied prisoners. Seems like a swell idea on paper, but what it effectively did was to help the smartest and most resourceful POWs pool their resources and concoct an even better escape plan. A “great” escape plan, if you will.

And that’s precisely what the POWs, led by Squadron Leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), set out to do. Roughly the first 3/4 of the movie is spent watching the prisoners devise and then implement their audacious escape plan, which they hope will lead 250 men to freedom. But at the same time as all that goes on, the duo of USAAF Captain Virgil “The Cooler King” Hilts (Steve McQueen) and RAF Flying Officer Archibald “The Mole” Ives (Angus Lennie) strike out on their own and attempts an escape. After certain tragic events transpire (which I won’t detail here), Capt. Hilts decides to join forces with Bartlett’s organization and things kick into high gear.

I got a kick out of watching the sheer ingenuity of Big X’s team, which devised all sorts of clever ways to implement their plans right under their captors’ noses (they had a tailor to help make civilian clothes and uniforms for the would-be escapees!). There were a surprising amount of humorous moments sprinkled throughout, but thankfully it never descended to the goofiness of Hogan’s Heroes. But even in the midst of the good cheer, the sense of real danger and rising tension was palpable. More than a few times the entire plan was threatened with discovery, and I found myself actively rooting for the characters on more than a few times.

And if it’s even possible, the intensity was ratcheted up in the final act, as the lucky escapees (I won’t say how many) went their separate ways and tried desperately to make it out of Nazi Germany. One thing that struck me as I watched this part is how much the TV show Prison Break seems to have drawn from the movie as inspiration (although their execution was somewhat lacking in comparison). Not that The Great Escape was the first film of its kind, but it is one of the most influential.

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963)

For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, you may still have heard of the iconic chase sequence involving Steve McQueen trying to evade capture on a stolen motorcycle. While I’m sure the chase scene was riveting in 1963 it does seem rather tame by today’s standards. But it was still fun to watch, and there is also a good deal of action and drama elsewhere in the movie that translates quite well more than 40 years later.

Finally, I must call out the great performances, which this movie had in spades. There were really too many to mention but the stars all came through in a big way. Attenborough and McQueen were brilliant, as was Donald Pleasence as Flight Lt. Colin “The Forger” Blythe. But my favorite performance was delivered by the venerable James Garner as Flight Lt. Anthony “The Scrounger” Hendley, an American serving in the RAF. Garner’s Hendley displayed a winning combination of toughness, wit, and compassion throughout the movie and was a pleasure to watch. Charles Bronson was quite good as Flight Lt. Danny “The Tunnel King” Velinski, but unfortunately I couldn’t stop thinking about the numerous Bronson impressions that I’ve seen on The Simpsons over the years (“this ain’t ovah!”). I think because of them I’m ruined for Charles Bronson as an actor through no fault of his own.

James Garner and Donald Pleasence in The Great Escape (1963)

Most of the events and people in The Great Escape were either lifted directly from reality or were composites. The movie’s Wikipedia entry goes into more detail on that; and while it’s great information for history buffs like myself to have, it’s not at all crucial to enjoying this excellent movie. I was surprised to see that it’s not included on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all-time, although I’m not enough of a movie aficionado to argue intelligently for its inclusion. I just assumed it was thought of so highly that it would be on the list.

Oh well. I’ll go ahead and start my own list of the 100 greatest movies and give The Great Escape a slot. Take that, AFI.

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