Friday, May 08, 2015

The Great Escape (1963)

USA, 172 minutes
Director: John Sturges
Writers: Paul Brickhill, James Clavell, W.R. Burnett
Photography: Daniel L. Fapp
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Editor: Ferris Webster
Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Nigel Stock

Yes, I admit, a certain comfort level probably went into choosing this for my 1963 Movie of the Year—in many ways The Great Escape is exactly that, a great escape, perfect with popcorn and on family holiday occasions. It concerns World War II and evil Nazis, and more or less the triumph of good over evil, though not exactly. It's set in a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp with cross-sections of population representing many nations of vigorous Allied troops, who never say die and never stop thwarting damn Nazis. It is packed full of young movie stars, notably Steve McQueen. At nearly three hours (and could / should have been closer to two) it's typical of the Hollywood bloat of these times. And perhaps because of the generally overlighted and unimaginative way it is blocked and staged, it often feels like a TV production—Hogan's Heroes, to be specific, which lifted plenty off it. Even the chirpy, tootling music sounds the same.

But for an easy bloat job, I think The Great Escape is actually pretty good. It's all narrative, a giant caper movie—with the usual "true story" disclaimers out front to handicap the excesses (the explanatory note calls them "compressions")—telling the story of an attempt to break no fewer than 250 POWs out of the camp at once, with the basic idea of providing a disrupting influence in the war even from within the formal borders of Germany. I don't go for caper movies normally, but I like this one, which is so efficient about laying out and executing its plot elements. Of course, the Nazis aren't as witless here as they were in Hogan's Heroes, though their brand of evil is represented on simplest levels, making them look more like petty tyrant bureaucrats than ruthless cannibalizing monsters. No need to worry for the little ones, in other words. It works fine as family fare. These Nazis are not as smart as any of their prisoners and we all know how the war turned out anyway. If anything it's triumphalism with a side dish of indomitable American exceptionalism that is what's for dinner here.

The Great Escape has clear affinities with movies that went before it: Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, also based on real events, also concerns intricate and agonizingly patient efforts to escape from Nazi clutches. David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai is only 10 minutes shorter, and the soldiers are in a Japanese POW camp rather than German, but hardy spirits tend to prevail about equally. There are even elements reminiscent of Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, such as the respect and dignity accorded fellow officers across the divides of armed hostility, and representations of the Swiss border as uniquely exhilarating and redemptive.

Well, just a second now. The torture in River Kwai has little real analogue in The Great Escape. For better or worse—and in the interests, I suspect, of getting it into shape as a family picture, at a time when all baby boomers were still minors—the Nazis are softened considerably. Even the isolation chamber into which Hilts (Steve McQueen) is continually confined, known as "the cooler," is relatively antiseptic. It's bare and unfurnished; it doesn't look comfortable. But it is well lighted and ventilated and they let him keep his baseball and glove to while away the lonely hours, playing catch with himself bouncing the ball off the walls. He never looks that much the worse for wear for his weeks-long confinements, though I think we are intended to admire how tough that makes him rather than how relatively soft he seems to have it as a German POW.

Which reminds me, The Great Escape is hardly without its exaggerations. The camp is supposed to be a WWII German version of a supermax prison where these POWs are put because they have been so good at escaping. There is an unfortunate if unsurprising element of the superheroic in the way all the talents of these POWs are distributed, and how good they are at the things they do: Blythe "the Forger" (Donald Pleasence) ended up in the POW camp by happenstance, but good thing. He's first-rate at what he does. Danny "the Tunnel King" (Charles Bronson) has dug no fewer than 17 tunnels in his time as a German prisoner. He's really got it down now. And Hendley "the Scrounger" (James Garner) produces the things they need like magic. In fairness, we see Hendley at work procuring things in a few scenes, so it's not exactly like magic. But it sure requires a lot of good luck. Complain about this in the family den, however, and you are likely to be reminded by someone that this is "based on a true story, so shut up."

Much of the last hour is spent following individual fortunes of the escapees. There is a long and exciting motorcycle chase and many nice tense scenes on trains and such. Most of the ones who manage to get away on the night of the escape, well short of the hoped for 250, wind up dead or caught and returned to the camp. For that reason I have seen people defending The Great Escape as realistic, because it has "no happy ending." But I believe the ending is clearly a happy one, because the spirits of only a very few of the prisoners are effectively broken by the Germans. There is an appalling German atrocity, again handled in an antiseptic fashion, but it only steels these survivors to more sabotage and disruption from within their vantage at the camp. Hilts may be returned to "the cooler" but in minutes we hear him playing catch with his baseball and glove again. You know those Nazis are going to rue the day they ever tried to hold him in a box.

Top 10 of 1963
1. The Great Escape
2. Hud
3. Winter Light
4. The House Is Black (22 min.)
5. The Birds
6. Tom Jones
7. The Leopard
8. Contempt
9. High and Low

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