The Great Escape is based on the true story of a group of Allied prisoners of war who managed to escape from an allegedly impenetrable Nazi prison camp during World War II. At the beginning of the film, the Nazis gather all their most devious and troublesome POWs and place them at a new prison camp, which was designed to be impervious to escapes. Immediately, the prisoners develop a scheme where they will leave the camp by building three separate escape tunnels.
“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.” –Ramsey
There’s something special about The Great Escape, and I just can’t seem to put my finger on it. I think it’s several elements combined, actually. The daring, indecently brilliant story. The jaunty theme music that can also be heartbreakingly poignant when called for. The large cast of vibrant, complicated, ingenious characters that you root for ever so hard. Put it all together, and you have a first rate movie, a film that really transcends time and space to become a stunning, hard-hitting classic. There’s something about the story of a group of brave men all working together toward a single goal and being witty and debonair and epic while doing so that stirs the imagination and fires up the spirit.
Exactly two weeks have gone by since my all day Steve Mcqueen + James Coburn movie marathon and since then, things have happened incredibly fast. I am now a firm Steve McQueen fan (not to mention James Coburn), own both The Great Escape and Wanted: Dead Or Alive (the complete series), and have ended up writing reviews for all three of the movies I watched that one day. I just watched TGE last night, and while I wasn’t as, um, vocal the second time around (I tended to do quite a lot of *cough* yelling at the characters the first time I watched it), it was still an invigorating experience. (Although I do have to point out that there’s nothing quite like watching those motorcycle chase scenes for The Very First Time.) I always like to watch films (or read books) at least two times before I review them so that I have a clearer understanding, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to watch TGE again for a while, because it’s three hours long (worth every minute of it, though), but I managed to squeeze it in. *fist-pump*
I love movies that are long and crammed full of characters and details and interesting scenes, so The Great Escape was exactly my cup of tea. (Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t watch it a long, long time ago.) There are several different subplots (or, if they aren’t large enough to be called full-blown subplots, than you can refer to them as ‘plot threads’) – Hilts’ and Ives’ numerous failed escape attempts, Hendley and Colin’s friendship, Bartlett and the Gestapo, Danny’s claustrophobia…there are so many different things going on in this film at any given time that you really have to watch it more than once to take it all in. I was surprised to find that less than a third of TGE concerns the different evasive measures taken after the escape, but it probably shouldn’t have been. I mean, it’s called The Great Escape for a reason. Most of the nail-biting moments (and yelling-at-the-characters moments) came during the aftermath of the escape, though, the most notable one probably being the infamous “Good luck!” scene. (ARGH.)
And, of course, The Motorcycle Chase. Ohhhhhhh, I could go on for paragraphs about the sheer epic power of that scene. Especially the jump over the barbed wire. Suffice to say, it’s one of the most insanely amazing movie scenes in the history of amazing scenes. In fact, at the moment, I can’t think of any scene that even comes close to matching it (although I know that there are at least a few). I think it was that scene alone that got me firmly planted in the Steve McQueen fanbase. (There’s a bit of trivia on IMDB about Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and a couple other co-stars went out to the barbed wire fence after filming had wrapped for the day and they all did the jump – I love that so much.)
Characters next. Since there are so many, I’ll just devote a quick sentence or two to all the major (and major-ish) ones. There’s Hilts (Steve McQueen), who endlessly tries to escape (and subsequently spends most of his time in the cooler). Elisabeth and I are convinced that as soon as he got out of the cooler (after the film ended), he immediately tried to escape again. Hendley (James Garner) scrounges/steals anything the other fellows might need. He wasn’t my favorite character, but I liked him quite a lot. Colin (Donald Pleasence) was a favorite character. He’s such a lovely, quiet, courageous person. Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) is ‘Big X’, the hub around which all the other prisoners, and all the escape attempts revolve. Personally, I don’t really like it when a bunch of characters sacrifice themselves for one person, but it was necessary in Bartlett’s case. Ramsey (James Donald) was someone else I really liked; I wish he could’ve made an escape attempt with the rest. Danny (Charles Bronson) is another good character, and I’m so happy that he and Willie made it to safety. And speaking of those who made it to safety, I can’t forget Sedgwick (James Coburn, with a rather fake Australian accent). Everything he came up with was cleverly thought out (as is practically everything in this film), and the little scene with him at the cafe with the French Resistance was great.
The last half hour or so is pretty depressing, on the whole. Hilts gets captured, Hendley gets captured, Colin is killed, The Fifty are massacred (which always hits me hard), etc. All that sadness is tempered, of course, with shots of Sedgwick, Willie, and Danny making it safety, but the whole thing is very bittersweet. Although I must say that the very last scene is one of the most perfect (if not the most perfect) film ending I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. I love echoed lines and scenes, and hearing that baseball banging against the cell wall once again put the biggest smile on my face. To say it’s poetic justice doesn’t really fit, because Hilts isn’t a villain or anything like that, but I don’t know what other term to use. It’s just…perfect. It really is. That’s all there is to it.
And then the words “This picture is dedicated to the fifty” appear on screen, and I nearly start crying. It’s a beautiful, faultless, heart-wrenching finale. The best, most simple tribute.