Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Movie Review: The Great Escape (1963)

"The goons have put every escape artist in Germany in this camp!"

In 1942, a group of allied air force prisoners of war were transferred to Stalag Luft III. It was constructed to as an "escape proof" camp to hold the problem POWs of the Allied forces. While the German guards keep a sharp eye on operations, "Big X" has a plan to take every man out of camp with the help of Tom, Dick and Harry. And so begins the deception, with every man assigned a role, all working towards the other side of the wire.

The Good:

This film is based off of a book by Paul Brickhill an ex-POW, documenting the true story of the largest Allied escape attempt from a German POW camp during WWII. Something I didn't know was that six Canadians were involved in the escape: George Harsh, Alfred Thompson, “Woody” Floody, William J. Cameron, Keith Ogilvie and Jack Moul. As usual with Hollywood and history, Canada's role has been whitewashed. Walter Floody though, played an important role in the making of the movie. He was hired as a technical adviser, being the overall planner and designer of the original three tunnels in WWII.

This is an ensemble film with various characters sharing the spotlight. Richard Attenborough plays "Big X", James Garner as "The Scrounger", Steve McQueen as "The Cooler King", Charles Bronson as "The Tunnel King" as well as many others. These various characters are well-rounded and each bring their own story and personality to the movie. This enables the viewer to empathize with their characters. For example, the relationship between the "Forger" and the "Scrounger" really shows the camaraderie between POWs despite their different backgrounds.

Though this is a film about a POW escape, this film is really funny. It helps break up the tension and brings some levity to a serious subject. As well there are some great scenes to watch for such as bribing the guard, the moonshine scene and the motorcycle chase. As well there is the iconic fence-jumping scene. Steve McQueen only accepted the role of Hilts after it was agreed he could show off his motorcycle skills. The jump itself was performed by stunt double and friend of McQueen's, Bud Ekins but it's still quite amazing.

Some real life experiences helped to create the final product. For example, Donald Pleasence (the "Forger") was an ex-POW and Sturges used his experiences to enhance the film. As well, Danny the "Tunnel King", suffers from claustrophobia and has to fight his fears as he digs to freedom. Bronson who plays Danny shared this phobia, having worked in coal mines before turning to acting. He didn't like the scenes in the tunnel, despite the fact that they were open to the studio on the camera side.

Something to watch for is the adlibbed line "No taxation without representation". McQueen does a double-take and clearly says "what?" but apparently director Sturges told him to run with it.

The Bad:

The frustrating truth about Hollywood is they tend to twist stories in order to sell more tickets. While Americans, Steve McQueen and James Garner play large parts in the film, no Americans were escaped from Stalag Luft III. The truth was that a more international group of Allies were involved. Producers most likely wanted viewers to more closely identify with the lead characters as well as showcase the American talent they had on hand. You should Americans were involved in orchestrating the escape but were transferred before it took place.

Steve McQueen apparently held up production because he wanted a larger part. James Garner went to reason with him and learned that McQueen wanted to be the hero of the movie, obviously not realizing it was an ensemble piece. McQueen's character was fleshed out and given more lines. Honestly Steve, this was not a cool move on your part.

The film also doesn't explain the difficulties of obtaining escape and bribe material. The reason for this is the survivors may a plea to the producers, asking them to not reveal how various items were hidden in personal parcels, for fear that the ideas might be used in future wars.

The Ugly:

The horrors of war are always ugly and while I enjoyed the film, it's important to remember and comprehend the ending. The film, based on real events end with the message "The film is dedicated to the 50".

Rating: 4/5


Anonymous said...

Such, such a good movie. This has become a national treasure in Britian - we show it every Christmas on TV, without fail. Steve McQueen seemed to spend a lot of his career being a bit of a diva, it appears. He refused to do 'The Towering Inferno' unless he was given exactly the same number of lines as Paul Newman was, if I remember correctly.

For my money, Richard Attenborough is the heart of this movie. And you're a good review writer - I never mention that enough.

theduckthief said...

That's really interesting that it's highly revered in Britain. "The Towering Inferno" is on my list for next because I hear it's awesome. I was first told it was called "The Burning Inferno" and decided then and there that I had to watch a movie with that title.

I agree about Attenborough being the heart of the movie. It was heartbreaking seeing him escape using his German skills in that town only to be caught again.

And thank you. No one's ever mentioned that before. I pull my hair out and curse my computer trying to write these things but they get done eventually.

For the record I'm thoroughly entertained by your blog and the various topics you post on. I don't know how you manage to be so prolific.