For top-notch wartime action and intrigue, look no further. Even if the ending is a bit of a bummer.
250 men, one elaborate plan; to get the hell out of dodge. The Great Escape is set in a P.O.W. camp in 1943, where hundreds of American and English soldiers are being held indefinitely in the clutch of the Luftwaffe, a organization originating from Nazi Germany. The men are restless; they are surviving under passable conditions, with livable (if meager) accommodations, but they want to see their families, their wives, their children. moreover, they want to raise some Hell and their refusal to live the servile existence of cattle costs them dearly in the long run.
When a RAF Squadron Leader by the name of Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) with a staggering number of escape attempts under his belt arrives in Stalag Luft III, the P.O.W. camp to end all P.O.W. Camps (guaranteed to contain even the most uncontainable prisoners,) he and stoic resident troublemaker Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) set about quick to forming an escape plan. They and a mass percentage of the prisoners begin to dig a massive hole that will hopefully bring them into the forest outside the camp, and then, hopefully, to freedom. But escape turns out to be harder than they had anticipated. And then there’s that one guy Danny (Charles Bronson) who’s Kryptonite is enclosed spaces; a really inconvenient affliction for a man who’s going to crawl through a long, impossibly tight tunnel to escape captivity to have. On the up side, he’s got his right-hand man and inseparable bosom friend Willie (John Leyton) (though they appear to be more than friends, if you ask me, but that’s just me picking up on subtext *wink*) to help out.
The Great Escape is almost three hours but it’s still worth watching, just pick a time to view it when you don’t have any other engagements for a good while. What makes it such a good movie is partly that they find important jobs to do even for people who seem initially useless. Take Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) a adorably British birdwatcher and tea drinker whose vision is quickly failing. Turns out mild-mannered Blythe is a pretty good forger and when his sight completely fails, leaving him blind and helpless in a wartime situation, his good friend Hendley (James Garner) takes up the reigns for him and helps smuggle him out of the camp. But even as Hendley leads the virtually sightless Blythe around German towns and landscapes, Blythe is not a burden, because no one would have gotten past square one without his clever forgeries. Everyone, even the men with challenges or who seemingly have nothing going for them, become an asset to the collective.
The movie also has an excellent ensemble cast and seems relatively short at about two hours forty minutes. It’s not as good as Pulp Fiction in that regard (… Fiction being the only movie over two hours I can sit and watch again and again and that will seemingly be over in no time at all). In a world where some eighty minute movies feel like they’re going on for interminable hours, The Great Escape just zips by due to it’s great writing and compelling plot. There is also some actual thought put into the characters (a rarity in adventure films) and they come off as distinct and fresh. The Nazi characters aren’t cartoon villains; there was even one (Robert Graf) who I felt quite sorry for at times (!)
The majority of them are doing their best with the roles given to them in a long, bloody war, they just happen to be fighting for the wrong side. There’s a moment when Graf’s character, Werner, says regretfully that he was taken out of the boy scouts, which he thoroughly enjoyed, to join the Hitler Youth and you are reminded that not every person fighting on one side of a war is a crazy extremist. Think the Confederates in the Civil War were a bunch of slave-owning racists and the union soldiers were saints? Think again! It’s emotionally dishonest to claim any one ‘side’ in a war is the devil incarnate. The Great Escape respects that in that for every evil Nazi in this movie there is another dude who wants to go home almost as much as the P.O.W.’s do.
Although The Great Escape is an old movie, it hasn’t aged a bit since it’s release in 1963. Some films start feeling old or irrelevant in their handling of themes (Hitchcock’s films are a great example, for me anyway) but The Great Escape kept people on the edge of their seat then and it will still keep people on the edge of their seat now wondering how these guys will turn out. There’s that harrowing iconic scene with Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle over a barbed wire fence and lots of suspenseful moments (like Pleasence and Garner attempting to escape from the soldiers by airplane.)
The only reason I can think of that people really wouldn’t like this movie is that society has very short attention span nowadays. It’s quite a long movie. Don’t watch it if your in a rush to just pop the DVD in, see the movie, and then pull it out in ninety minutes flat. It’s got a big, multi layered story with a ton of characters (I couldn’t even identify some of the main characters by the end of the movie,) it’s meant to be absorbed, taken seriously. Apparently this is based on a true story; I can’t think of a better way to honor the men who participated in this elaborate escape than the making of this movie. And considering all the biopics that exploit their subject matter, that is saying something.