Monday, 1 January 2018

The Great Escape (1963)

Den store flugt
During the Christmas holiday I have, by coincidence rather than design, been watching John Sturges “The Great Escape”, a movie I thought I remembered from ages ago (turned out I was confusing it with another movie) and had been looking forward to see again. An adventurous movie in color with quality actors. The right medicine to overcome the torment that was “Flaming Creatures”.

Going into a movie with high expectations is problematic and true enough, 10 minutes in I started to become disappointed. It did not last, though, and by the time it finished I was happy enough about this movie. I know the bar is not that high in 63, but I think it would have been a good movie in any year.

“The Great Escape” is the story about a group of Commonwealth (+ a few American, for the audience) war prisoners, who are brought to a high security POW camp due to their history of attempting escape. True to form, they have hardly arrived before they start planning their next escape. While a few of the them, Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Ives (Angus Lennie) in particular want to do it on their own, the majority joins a large-scale effort to free a very large number of prisoners.

This effort is led by Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who is considered an escape genius, and is joined by capacities such as Hendley (James Garner), the master scrounger, Velinsky (Charles Bronson), a master tunneller, Sedgwick (James Coburn), maker of all things, and  many others including Blythe (Donald Pleasence), the forger, who actually spent a long time in a POW camp during the war.

The plan, which takes up the major part of the movie, consists of digging three tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry), under the fence and into the surrounding woods. The tunnels are however just part of the plan. They also must arrange papers, cloths, backstories and scout out the terrain around the camp. The whole plan is close to collapse when one of the tunnels is discovered and when the second turn out to be 20 feet short it is nearly fatal.

The last part is the story follows those who do get out and how most of them get rounded up by the Germans. I suppose that is a spoiler, but since it is a movie that claims to tell a true story, there are limits to the freedoms it can take and this is something that can be looked up.

My initial disappointment came from the very obvious Hollywood makeover this story got. Everything looks just a tad or two too pretty, glorious and heroic. I know this was a camp for western officers, the top-rung of prisoners, but having watched and read so many stories of prison camps in Germany during the war, I have come to expect a grimy and miserable camp full of starving and worn out prisoners. This is 1944 and nobody in Germany, except for the top echelon is getting enough to eat, yet these people look like they are in a summer camp. Their hunger to escape is not because of any physical want, but a combination of wanting to get home and to go back to join the fight. At the same time we see none of the German brutality that was so notorious in the camps.

An hour into the movie however I had overcome this suspension of disbelief (too many musicals have trained me in that skill) and I started to enjoy it for the boyish adventure it is. The tunnel is really amazing and the logistics they set up is impressive and slowly the characters start to flesh out. There are so many stars here that there is never enough time with any of them, but this kind of two-dimensional story does not require that much depth.

The story also turns outright exciting and tense as the escape draws close and is executed and the last hour of this very long movie rushed by in a flash.

For a movie that takes as many freedoms with the true story as this one does, the ending may come as a surprise. I had in my mind pictured this escape as a great success with all these heroic characters finding their way back home. When reality catches up with the fairy tale, it is brutal and laconic. How much patience would Nazi-Germany have for enemy officers on the run?

I think the ending saves the movie to a large extent. It gives it more weight and goes a long way to tone down the fluff. I come out of the movie feeling very entertained and with a sufficiently somber feeling in the gut. Definitely a highlight of 63 and recommended.


  1. See what I told you? I said you've got some great movies ahead in 1963, and this is one of the ones I was thinking of.

    There's a lot to like in it, not the least of which is the tremendous cast and the boy's-own adventure feel of it. And it's a great reminder that Steve McQueen was too cool for this world.

    1. Yes, this is the sort of movie that helps me throuogh the sixties.
      The cast is half this movie. Normally I see a large all-star cast as a problem, but here it works fine.

  2. I saw this in the theater as a kid and believed from the word go. It has always been a favorite. I'm looking forward to another rewatch pretty soon.

    1. It is true adventure and it certainly appealed to the little boy within me.
      I think you would still like it and I will look out for your review.