Genre: Adventure and War Running Time: 2 hrs. 52 min.
Release Date: July 4th, 1963 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Sturges Actors: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Donald, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton
he courageous, booming march by Elmer Bernstein that opens the picture is instantly one of the most memorable and notable pieces of music in cinema history (though it isn’t regularly repeated throughout, instead used sparingly and in conjunction with more orchestral arrangements). For the subject matter and affectation, it can be compared to the whistled tune from “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” It perfectly sets the mood and tone for a film that undeniably shows a lighter, wittier, more adventurous, and action-packed angle of the Second World War. Playful, cheeky, overly lenient at times (cursorily attributed to the governance by the Luftwaffe as opposed to the SS or Gestapo), but still mindful of mortality and severity in the end, “The Great Escape” is an epic account of a monumental wartime endeavor.
Captain Posen (Robert Freitag) escorts Senior British officer and new captive Captain Ramsey (James Donald) to the Kommandant, Colonel Von Luger (Hannes Messemer), of the enormous, recently constructed, high-security prisoner-of-war camp. It houses a remarkable accumulation of allied soldiers from the ongoing WWII, most of which are repeat escapers. It’s Luger’s hope that Ramsey will be a cooperative liaison to help keep fellow detainees from causing problems so that they can all sit out the war as comfortably as possible. But, it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, to cause an inordinate amount of enemy soldiers to guard them, and to harass those sentries whenever possible. On the first day (in the first twenty minutes), numerous escape attempts are mounted but none are successful. And several participants are introduced to the “cooler,” a set of separated cells used for extreme isolation (but still much more forgiving than the hot box in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”).
Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), a particularly skilled planner, is brought to the camp, where he surveys that essentially every great escape artist in Germany has been gathered. Immediately organizing a meeting amongst the officers, he lays out the basic plot of digging three tunnels (to be dubbed Tom, Dick, and Harry) simultaneously to free approximately 250 men. A considerable amount of tools, supplies, outfits, identification papers, rations, maps, and manpower are required – as well as time. It’s a long, slow process, but with specialists in scrounging, tunneling, gathering intelligence, forging, distracting, and more, Bartlett and his team begin an undertaking of such magnitude, teamwork, and skill that it makes for an absolutely thrilling cinematic experience.
The cast is sensational, congregating an assortment of A-list American and British actors who all manage to convince of their roles (questionable accents aside). Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Robert Hendley (James Garner) are the only two American POWs, while Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Nigel Stock, David McCallum, John Leyton, and more round out the stars of this notable filmic collection. They all impart humor, tension, nerves, endurance, determination, camaraderie, a degree of respect that harkens back to the generally unobserved conduct of “Grand Illusion,” and an element of lax supervision that seems equally ignored in most modern examinations of WWII (here, commercial appeal is of top priority). It also scrutinizes the differences in the various countries’ military policies and behaviors, the direness of being a prisoner during the entire duration of the war, and the realization that many soldiers are unwilling contributors in the fight – just average humans like everyone else. But “The Great Escape” is based on the book by Paul Brickhill, with initial text that insists that every detail of the breakout is depicted in the way that it really happened.
Bordering on three hours in length, the film gives adequate time to the harrowing events, the claustrophobic manufacturing of the tunnels, and the sense of passing time necessary to make the undertaking appear authentically orchestrated. An additional appealing factor involves the focus on not only the prison break itself but also on the completion or obstruction of fleeing Germany. While it’s no shock that the escape was successful for a large number of POWs (the number of 76 is reported in the film), the aftermath, influence, and manner of total liberation (some by train, boat, and bike) is oftentimes overlooked due to the sheer nerve-wracking power and build to the flight from the camp itself. Those who make it all the way to true freedom are, tragically, much fewer.
– Mike Massie