PUT A FENCE IN FRONT OF THESE MEN… AND THEY’LL CLIMB IT…
It may be hard to believe that there is a real-life story behind such a classic and typically Hollywood movie as The Great Escape, but there is. In 1943, Australian fighter pilot Paul Brickhill was taken prisoner by the Germans and ended up in Stalag LuftIII, a camp in Poland. He never did escape from it, but observed and wrote a book about the attempt that became the basis for this film. The events may have been romanticized to some extent here, but director John Sturges turns the film into such a cheerfully engaging event that few will mind.
The Germans have gathered everyone of their Allied prisoners who are most likely to escape in a new camp that is allegedly impossible to leave. Most of the prisoners have made numerous escape attempts in other camps. Among them are the British RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) who immediately tells his fellow POW’s that his new plan is about as grand as they come. This time there will be three new tunnels (dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry) and 250 men will be able to escape; should the guards find one of the tunnels, the prisoners will still have two other options.
Bartlett’s closest allies in the camp go to work on the tunnels, including Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner), an American who’s an expert “scrounger”; using contacts and bribes, there isn’t anything he can’t lay his hands on. Meantime, another American, Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), is serving a punishment in the cooler and preparing an escape attempt of his own with a fellow prisoner; he will soon find reason to cooperate with Bartlett.
Making us care deeply for their plight
There are similarities to a previous Sturges classic, The Magnificent Seven (1960), where we also had a group of honorable men fighting oppressors; McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson were all in that movie as well. Looking at his oeuvre, the director truly seems like a man’s man, but that doesn’t mean he ignored the emotional aspects of this story; the film is dedicated to the 50 prisoners who were executed by the Germans for trying to escape and there’s a moving substory about a Scottish POW who needs freedom so badly that he’d die for it.
Still, the film has a generally positive feeling in its portrayal of these men that make us care deeply for their plight; we see Brits, Americans, Russians and Australians working hard together, trying to come up with one innovative idea after another of how to get the three tunnels built. This is where McQueen got his breakthrough, Bronson and Coburn got some experience prior to their own successful careers, and character actors like Donald Pleasence and Attenborough lend the motley bunch some gravitas. The last half-hour has the now-famous motorcycle jump that Hilts performs (one that helped boost the image of McQueen as a heroic icon of the 1960s), but Sturges doesn’t need grand shoot-outs to create tension.
The confined quarters of the camp and the single-minded mission of the prisoners is enough to maintain audiences’ interest. Technically, the film is convincing throughout and Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score (just as memorable as the one he wrote for The Magnificent Seven) will make you stand at attention.
Finally, I have to return to the subject of McQueen. Just watching him interact with other people in this movie makes you admire his playful touch as an actor. The way he taunts the men who keep him imprisoned and charms his fellow unfortunates with little smiles, smirks and glances… His behavior makes him unpredictable to both groups, but irresistible to us.
The Great Escape 1963-U.S. 168 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by John Sturges. Screenplay: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett. Novel: Paul Brickhill. Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Editing: Ferris Webster. Cast: Steve McQueen (Virgil Hilts), James Garner (Bob Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Roger Bartlett), Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum… Donald Pleasence.
Trivia: Pleasence was also a prisoner of war during WWII; Attenborough was a real-life RAF pilot. Followed by a miniseries, The Great Escape II: The Untold Story (1988).
Quote: “I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air, and I plan on doing both so before the war is out.” (McQueen)
Last word: “So [McQueen and I] looked at it and we finally figured out. ‘Steve, you want to be the hero, but you don’t want to do anything heroic.’ He didn’t like the thing of the little Irishman going up the wall and getting shot, and then pulling him down. He didn’t want to do anything physical that was heroic. So what they did, if you’ll notice, he’s the hero because he escaped, got captured, but when he came back, he had information of all the area there. Oh boy, what a hero. And he didn’t have to do a lot of stuff. John Sturges called me one day when he was putting the film together and he said, ‘Come have lunch.’ We did. He said, ‘Jim, I’ve got to tell you, the two best acting scenes in the film are with you and Donald Pleasence. They’re on the cutting room floor.’ He says, ‘I’ve got to stay with McQueen and the bike.’ Hey, it made the picture. Sturges was absolutely correct, but as far as acting went, out the window.” (Garner, About.com)