Oct. 29, 2009

The Great Escape (1963)
Grade: 64/100

Director: John Sturges
Stars: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough

What it's about. It is World War II, and the Germans have built an allegedly escape-proof prisoner of war camp for Allied officers. They send to this camp all of their prisoners from other camps who have made the most escape attempts. Naturally, said prisoners immediately conspire to escape. The plan is to build a series of tunnels that lead out of the armed and fortified camp into the nearby woods. Hundreds of prisoners are to escape via train, bearing forged papers and counterfeit uniforms.

The cast includes six famous names. Steve McQueen is a rebel notorious for frequent trips to the "cooler" or camp solitary confinement. James Garner is a smuggler and confidence artist. Charles Bronson is an expert at building tunnels. Donald Pleasence is a forger. James Coburn is an technician who can construct things like air vents. Richard Attenborough is the leader, and directs the formidable preparations for the Great Escape.

How others will see it. The Great Escape was and is highly popular. It currently ranks #95 within the imdb.com Top 250, and the imdb user ratings are universally extremely high, with the solitary exception of women over 45, who may fail to salute the rebellious spirit of a man in solitary confinement spending hour upon hour bouncing and catching a baseball.

It should be noted, however, that the crowd-pleasing aspects of the movie (cinematic defiance and conspiracy against Nazis had been around since at least Casablanca) were lost on the more prestigious film academies. BAFTA ignored it altogether, and the Oscars bestowed only a single nomination, in a technical category.

How I felt about it. As usual for a fact-based movie, I researched The Great Escape to determine its historical accuracy. It turns out that there were no Americans in the camp at the time of the escape, and that it occurred in March, when the German countryside was covered by a blanket of thick snow. The 50 prisoners executed were not shot at once in a single place. I also doubt that one of the escapees was blind, since escape was difficult enough for even the best prepared, but I could not find any evidence to support my suspicions.

One can argue that the Great Escape was a failure. After all, dozens of escapees were shot, for every one (three in all) who made it to freedom. If the Allied prisoners had done nothing except to patiently pass time in the Stalag camp, they all would have all made it through the war safe and sound.

But this argument is specious. The Germans depended on their adversaries not putting up resistance. They had to be defeated, and this took a collective effort. The heroes are those who took risks and made sacrifices. The meaning behind "The Great Escape" is resistance against an fascist state. That distinguishes it from prison break movies that depict violence and kidnapping by convicts.

It was a magnificent coordinated effort by prisoners of war. The fact it effectively failed is isn't the point. They believed that it was their duty to try as hard as they could to escape.

Their motivation is laudatory, as is their teamwork and cooperation. The only obvious criticism to make is the soap opera aspects of the story: Will blind Donald Pleasence make to safety, with James Garner holding his hand? Can "tunnel king" Charles Bronson overcome his claustrophobia to escape in time to make increasingly dubious Death Wish sequels? Should we shed a tear for Stalag Kommandant Hannes Messemer, who might be shot by the Gestapo?