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The Great Escape (John Sturges 1963) – the Friday Classic review

June 8, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 1 Comment

Not just any Tom, Dick or Harry, but the gold standard of WWII adventure: precisely detailed, outrageously entertaining and better than anything England will do in Euro 2012.

The Great Escape 1963 John Sturges Steve McQueen

The Great Escape
(John Sturges, US, 1963)

The Great Escape is one of those films. A shared cultural heritage, a mainstay in the schedules, a source of in-jokes, homages and football anthems alike. The word, aptly, is ‘inescapable.’ And yet there’s a reason for that ubiquity. The film is a gem, the kind of consummately crafted entertainment Hollywood doesn’t seem to be able to pull off any more.

OK, so it’s problematic…if you’re inclined to worry about these things. It’s a film in which (let’s be honest) the Nazis win, where many of the heroes are brutally slaughtered at the climax. And yet it ends with a insouciant spring in its step, a triumph of Boys Own adventure over the queasy realities of warfare. The film is based on a book by Paul Brickhill, the same writer who provided the source for The Dam Busters a decade before, and yet the glossy fantasy here couldn’t be more dissimilar to the sober, methodical realism of the earlier film. Time heals…but it also ironises, and The Great Escape kickstarted a new trend in WWII movies, in which one generation’s fear of Nazism was replaced by the rabble-rousing ‘fuck you’ of young bucks like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes.

But one thing does remind of The Dam Busters: the attention to detail. This remains one of the most gripping of ‘how to’ films, because the plot is mapped out with sublime skill. Only the final act charts the contrasting fortunes of the escapees; the bulk of the narrative shows, with palpable love for the minutiae, how they did it in the first place. The tunnels, the dirt-smuggling trousers, the lessons in scrounging, and forging, and tailoring… it’s a goldmine of information, and most of it bona fide PoW tips.

Better still, the script filters the fact through an astonishingly robust dramatic structure. This is a film able to take its time because it fills every minute with incident and character building. A whole half-hour has gone by before Richard Attenborough even shows up to reveal his masterplan; until then, there’s a calm mapping out of the camp, introducing the main characters as they make their explanatory forays and initial escape attempts. John Sturges sets out his stall here: he’s going to keep things clean and simple. For an epic war movie, it’s remarkable how little the camera moves. Instead, it’s all in the edit, a managerial instinct for keeping every plate spinning.

And, with a whole feature length’s worth of planning before the escape itself, everybody gets their chance to shine. Despite the top-billing of the token Yanks, this is a true ensemble piece, with particularly memorable moments for Donald Pleasance as blind forger Blythe, Robert Graf as dumb-ass Nazi Werner and Robert Desmond as the camp-in-camp tailor Griff. The film frequently sails into the waters of the preposterous: surely nobody is convinced by James Coburn’s Aussie accent, and making Charles Bronson’s digging expert scared of being underground is one of the dafest bits of character development ever. But, as Gordon Jackson says at one point, these moments are “indecently brilliant,” a gradual building of quirks that is what makes the film such a pleasure to watch again and again.

But stars will out. Richard Attenborough is a nerveless fucker here, practically Brighton Rock’s Pinkie stuck in a uniform and given some heroic responsibility. Bartlett is virtually sociopathic in his ambition for shit-stirring, and his character can turn on a dime: scarily cool pretending to be German in the face of interrogation, yet barely able to curb his rage when Bronson’s Danny has a wig-out mid-escape. Any other film, Attenborough would steal it…

..but he’s up against a professional thief here. Steve McQueen, ever the minimalist, knows he hardly has to do anything to get our attention. As to prove it, there’s a third American here alongside McQueen and James Garner, whose job, it seems, is simply to jabber away to highlight McQueen’s manly silence, ever watchful through his trademark squint. The ‘Cooler King’ persona is a masterstroke: it showcases McQueen’s rebel instinct, but it also takes him out of the action for about half the film, allowing the anticipation to build when he’s not on-screen.

McQueen does two things of note: taking charge of the botched escape when he discovers the tunnel is short by 20ft; and showcasing his petrolhead moves with the film’s best escape route – but that’s all he needs. It scarcely matters that it was the actor’s stuntman mate who made the famous fence jump; McQueen is savvy enough to disrobe from Hilts’ fake Nazi uniform so he’ll be wearing a more cool / less Fascist T-shirt in the publicity shots. The Cooler King, indeed.

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One Comment

  1. Tim PelanJun 8, 2012 at 7:27 pmReply

    Great review! McQueen, as you say, is an attention magnet. Witness The Magnificent Seven – in a publicity shot of all seven, he is the only one, on the end, holding his hat. Cool cat.

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