Arts and Lifestyle Wednesday Presented by The Exit Room of Lee's Summit-Escape to a Classic War and Caper Film
A week or so back, my buddy Kurtis Seaboldt retweeted, with a note to me, a tweet by History Lovers Club that showed a photo of Steve McQueen on a motorcycle in his part as Virgil Hilts, “The Cooler King” in the iconic 1963 film “The Great Escape”. I never need an excuse to revisit one of my favorite films ever, but that was a nice trigger. Favorite can be different than great, and I think that fits perfectly with this movie. While it is a touch sanitized, it still produces myriad standout performances, is directed and edited (its lone Academy Award nomination) with excellence, and produces brilliant tension and excitement.
It’s part war film, part caper movie, and is stuffed with stars who were at the height of their fame, or in the act of solidifying it. It is set in a German prison camp designed to harbor the top Allied escape artists in one place. But having the cleverest and most determined offenders within one camp only inspires the prisoner leaders to try and cook up one giant escape that will hopefully free the men, but also tax the resources of the Germans.
It is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book of the same name, based on actual events. The escape plot itself, and many of the details like hiding soil from tunneling, creating forged documents, tailoring uniforms, and building the tunnels, are very accurate. They are also one of the many delights of the film. The buildup, and intricate and elaborate planning, are fascinating. However, many of the character details are fictionalized. Several the characters are composites, and there were no Americans actually involved in the real escape, and quite a few are in the film.
Many of these “all-star” type of films don’t work, but the length of the movie allows characters to be developed well so that we have time to care about them, even though there are many. The group of actors portraying the prisoners is a who’s who of top American and British stars of the time. Richard Attenborough portrays Roger Bartlett, “Big X”, who upon arrival at the supposedly air-tight camp, immediately begins concocting a wildly ambitious gambit, to escape 250 prisoners at once.
The other heavy hitter’s portray characters who provide different skill sets to fuel the vastly complicated enterprise. There are forgers, and tailors, and tunnel specialists, all of whom need various supplies, many procured by “The Scrounger”, Robert Hendley, played with his usual unassuming cool by James Garner. Garner is one of my personal favorites, and as famous as he was, I think he still was underrated.
Toss a coin for your favorite cool cat in this one, because one of cinema’s best in that category, Steve McQueen, solidified his status as the archetypal simmering wise-ass as Hilts, constantly at odds with the enemy, and often times not just them. His constant trips to solitary confinement get him his nickname, and his coping mechanism of tossing and catching a baseball bounced off the cell well is as memorable a plot device as there is in the history of the cinema. He always has his glove tossed to him by a fellow inmate as he is marched to the cell.
The list of fine and familiar actors is long. James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, and a host of other British actors whose names you might not recognize but whose faces you will. Each small pair , or team, who provide different tasks gets a different subplot, and eventually, different escape tale.
Bronson’s Danny is a burly, but now claustrophobic, tunnel-digging expert who has been smothered by too many tunnel collapses. But he perseveres with the help of his friend Willie (John Leyton). Garner’s scrounger Hendley is roommates with Blythe (Pleasance), the forger whose myopia is worsening rapidly due to close work in bad lighting. Hendley eventually insists on accompanying Blythe when the escape organizers threaten to not include him. Hilts is friends with fellow serial escape artist Ives, "The Mole" (Angus Lennie), whose repeated attempts, and stints in solitary, lead him to the precipice of paranoia.
Ives is at the center of one of the seminal scenes in the movie, a 4th of July party conjured up by the Americans, who have been making powerful hooch out of potatoes for the occasion. The first time I saw this movie was as a young boy in September 1967. It was shown in two parts on consecutive nights on CBS, and this scene becomes a perfect end to Act I. The two-part special produced the number one and number two rated television events of the season.
The subplots are numerous, but handled perfectly by the respected action director John Sturges, who had directed McQueen, Coburn, and Bronson in another all-star epic of a different kind, “The Magnificent Seven”, three years earlier.
The escape itself comes in the final third of the movie, and features numerous interwoven stories about the attempted flights to freedom. Most are tension filled, but planned around ordinary circumstances carefully mapped out such as train travel and the like. A couple are improvised like Sedgewick’s (Coburn) theft of a bicycle, which leads him to a rendezvous with the French resistance, or Hendley and Blythe’s heist of an airplane.
And of course, there is the epic motorcycle chase with Hilts blazing through villages and into the countryside with the Nazi’s in hot pursuit. McQueen did most of the riding (he even portrayed some of the pursuing Germans), although the most dangerous leap was done by a stunt man. Elmer Bernstein’s music is a major part of the film, and is especially compelling in the chase, which doesn’t come in one scene, but is intercut into other plots. Bernstein was only nominated for a paltry fourteen!!! Academy Awards in his career
Many of you have no doubt seen this movie at least once, but I am not going down any spoiler road for those who haven’t. This movie and its riveting pre-planning and later perilous escapes are so compelling, that even though I have easily seen the film two dozen times or more, it still is tense and gripping.
I am not the biggest fan of what you would call popcorn movies, but I can gobble this one up over and over. This is not a gritty, realistic look into the horrors of war like classic films like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Platoon”, but neither is it anywhere close to idealized.
If you haven’t had the chance to see it, buy it, rent it, DVR it when it pops up on your grid, or hell, borrow my copy. If you have, do the same thing and enjoy it again. Star power, a fascinating plot, enough humor to leaven its darkest times, it pretty much checks every box.
Next month, in England on the 75th anniversary of the escape, the RAF will use the film as a centerpiece for a commemoration of the event, and the film will be shown simultaneously at theaters all across the U.K.
It certainly is a worthy choice.
Clink Scale 8.9