“The Great Escape” at Fifty


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I’m pleased to report that watching The Great Escape (50 years old this year) is still a thoroughly enjoyable experience, in spite of – or perhaps because of – how silly parts of it are. War could never have been this much fun. The prisoners themselves, a melange of clean-cut and good-looking allies, thrown together in the POW camp from which it is supposedly impossible to escape, behave less like soldiers and airmen and more like schoolboys.

Which, of course, may be the point. Being a British officer was for many a rehash of the codes and practices first learned in the playing fields and dormitories and tuck shops of Eton. The British officers are all very stuck-up and ramrod straight; they conduct war like gentlemen, saluting the German officers, thinking fondly of cricket at the MCC and in general behaving like Britons wished to believe they were: morally superior and on the right side of history. The Senior British Officer, all stiff upper lip and condescending superiority (“the British have always loved gardening”) calmly explains that it’s the duty of every officer to harrass the enemy.

The German officers, meanwhile, especially camp commandant Von Luger, are eloquent and civilised in the “we’re not so you different, you and I” manner. He hopes that “we can all sit out the war in relative comfort”, and he and the film are at great pains to draw a distinction between the Luftwaffe and the Gestapo. Another Boys Own war adventure, Where Eagles Dare, does the same.

Richard Attenborough as Big X, with his scars from Gestapo torture, runs the escape committee but has little time for the niceties of war. Regular German soldiers, Gestapo, SS; they’re all the same to him: the enemies of freedom. It is significant, though, that he plans the escape in the same manner as a schoolboy would plan a raid on the crawlers over at Herbert House. With his little body and pursed mouth, it is easy to see Attenborough as the teacher’s pet or the boy in charge of the tuck shop.

His performance is so mannered, so conscious of the ineffable goodness of his plan, when he speaks you can hear all of England stirring in his heart, and watching him in The Great Escape it is hard to recall his nasty turn as Pinky in Brighton Rock, but it is incredibly easy to see the gushing believer in goodness that would go on to make the reverential and religiose Gandhi.

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The actual escape was chronicled by Paul Brickhill, who was also a POW at Stalag Luft III. Brickhill was relucatant to sell the film rights as he was concerned it would become a Hollywood travesty. It was only after he spoke with the real Big X’s parents that he was convinced to sell it. For his part, Sturges had difficulty getting a studio interested. It was felt it was a story about escapees who don’t actually escape. James Clavell, who also wrote King Rat, had a hand in the script to give the British characters some authenticity.

The Britishers run the show in The Great Escape, but it is the Americans who give it its panache. Steve McQueen and James Garner, both approaching the height of their stardom, represent good old-fashioned American pluckiness. They’re irreverent flyboys, full of cocky swagger.

McQueen, the Cooler King, flashes his smile and widens his eyes and throws his baseball against the wall of the solitary cell. Garner wears his hat at a jaunty angle and lets his smooth voice do all the work as he cajoles and swindles his way through the war.

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Garner plays the Scrounger as a raffish knave. There’s more than a little of Orson Welles in The Third Man about him, and it’s not surprising to learn he was a real-life scrounger in his unit in Korea. Watching him you cannot help think that he if he had failed the physical and been forced to stay home, he’d be the guy making a fortune on the black market and charming his way into the pants of the Girl You Left Behind.

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If these characters had not been played by McQueen and Garner, of course, they might be despicable. As it is, they’re the heroes, and they have a wonderful presence on screen, as they saunter around the camp stealing potatoes to make moonshine.

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Interesting piece of movie trivia. The motorbike that McQueen rode was the same one Fonzie had in Happy Days

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It’s surprising to learn that the director John Sturges didn’t think the film would be a star vehicle. McQueen solidified his star status with The Great Escape He may not have been a great actor – Robert Mitchum said ‘Steve doesn’t bring much to the party’ – but he knew how to get your attention. He does a lot of business with props, a trick he learned on the set of The Magnificent Seven to take your eyes off Yul Brynner. He was jealous of Garner’s talent, and certainly of Garner’s cool presence. Apparently he threw a hissy fit on set because Garner had a nice hat and he had nothing, which might explain why he got the baseball mitt in the first place.

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The film was a follow up to The Magnificent Seven. Sturges and the Mirisch Company learned from that film how to balance many personalities and let them fit archetypes, the actors grouped together like puzzle pieces: Charles Bronson, the tunneller, short, surly; James Coburn, with a ludicrous Australian accent, tall and lean and loose-limbed and the most relaxed presence in the film; David McCallum, tight-lipped, reserved, hiding under his pretty boy lashes and goldilocks hair, he’s like an early not quite perfect prototype of Jeremy Irons; Angus Lennie, the tiny, fragile Scot, there solely to be sacrificed; Gordon Jackson, the sturdier Scot (he knocks back moonshine and judges it “rather good”); Donald Pleasance, the forger, going blind, as English as crumpet and warm beer.

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Pleasance, in fact, though he plays the part begging for sympathy, perhaps brought some much-needed realism to the set. Pleasance spent a decidedly unpleasant two years as a POW in WWII in Norway in a camp nothing like the camp setting of The Great Escape. He said of his camp experience “mostly it was boring”, and he helped run a theatre there. He put on a production of The Petrified Forest, playing the Leslie Howard part, with “a six foot one Canadian flyer playing the Bette Davis part.”

The Great Escape is worth watching in a double bill with Jean Renoir’s pacifist POW film La Grande Illusion, to which it owes a great debt. Made in 1937, it is as removed from the First World War as The Great Escape is from the Second.

Both films have a certain fondness and charming interest in the cliches of their respective stories. Both films believe in the idea of throwing together types: sober officers, comical enlisted men. La Grande Illusion is less an escape story than a meditation on the decline of the aristocracy that the Great War ushered in.

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Both films have tunnels; both have gardening as a way to disguise the dirt; both have dutiful officers saluting each other. There is a show in La Grande Illusion, a cabaret with men in drag dancing the can-can and singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. Watching it is oddly reminiscent of suffering Melvin Hays in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum

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The merits of the real escape are still debated.  Act of defiant bravery or foolish suicide mission? Either way, the assassination of fifty escaped prisoners – an arbitrary number that the Nazis picked – was one of the most controversial acts of the war.

Watching it again after all these years, after more realistic and grittier war films, after Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence, after Schindler’s List, even after the TV series ColditzThe Great Escape still holds up as an entertaining adventure. Perhaps this is because there is still a desire to see McQueen jump that fence, and every time I watch it I keep hoping he’ll make it.

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