movie review: the great escape

This poster is the coolest.

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.



7 thoughts on “movie review: the great escape

  1. Yup. Practically perfect in every way, isn’t it?

    IIRC, they wanted a stunt man to do the jump over the barbed wire and it wasn’t working, so McQueen did it, and perfectly. Of course. I can’t remember now if that’s a real story or an urban legend, tho, so don’t quote me on it 🙂


  2. Unfortunately, it’s urban legend! The studio actually forbade McQueen to do the jump, flat-out, though he badly wanted to. The stunt man who actually did it was Bud Ekins, and McQueen himself always tried to correct the rumors, even though they spread anyway. 😉

    I LOVE this movie too! I had a friend back in highschool who recommended The Magnificent Seven to me, and from there I found TGE. I could watch it again and again. All the characters! All the feels! I love how James Sturges directed his ensemble casts. All those colorful supporting roles stick in your mind. Although this is where I really fell in love with Richard Attenborough too.

    If you want to see Attenborough and McQueen in their own feature, they’re both really good in The Sand Pebbles, which was McQueen’s only Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It’s not my favorite movie of his though. It’s very long, and it’s based on this really grim, basically anti-war novel. I was probably too young the first time I watched it, but like you I was on a McQueen roll. It’s about a river boat stuck on the Yangtze just when the Chinese are getting really riled up and deciding they hate Westerners. Most everybody dies, there’s a torture scene, a pregnant woman gets killed off screen… yeah, it’s not fun at all. But, those two guys do get some amazing scenes in it.


    • You’re right about the feels…there are SO MANY of them. I briefly considered watching TGE today in honour of the anniversary, but I watched it recently and I’m not sure I want to go through all that emotional turmoil again. (And I don’t think I’d have enough time anyway.) So I’m watching a few episodes of Wanted: Dead or Alive. 🙂

      And I’ll have to check out The Sand Pebbles; I’m always on the lookout for new McQueen movies that I could possibly watch (many of them are out for me, at least right now, because of content issues), so thanks for the recommendation!


      • Well, if you’re concerned about content issues, I should caution you to be careful with this one too. It’s definitely not on the same level as something like Papillon, but it’s pretty grim. The mob torture scene is the worst part. There’s also a gritty boxing match where one character keeps getting pummeled until he finally starts to fight back, plus some blood in the battle scene at the end (no worse than Hell is for Heroes though, which I also consider a little edgy violence-wise).They also rescue a prostitute who’s being ogled very overtly by some sailors. There’s a very dramatic scene where the sailors make her stand on a table and demand that she strip for them, but McQueen and Attenborough’s characters stop it before she does and take her away from the brothel. This then sets up my favorite aspect of the movie, which is the Attenborough character’s relationship with her. She naturally expects him to treat her like any other man would, but he’s really falling in love with her and wants to have something like a marriage ceremony. So they go to a little chapel with McQueen’s character and another girl as witnesses and make up their own vows. It’s so beautiful! But, obviously, lots of mature themes and coarse language in the setup for how they meet her.

        Also, it’s just really, really sad, but again, it looks like you’ve dealt with movies that have really sad endings before. So as long as you know what you’re getting into (and as long as you understand that the whole thing is kind of rigged to make you go “Aaaaah, I see now that patriotism is foolish and all war is pointless, thank you for enlightening me!”) you might find it interesting. It’s definitely an amazing performance from McQueen. Very vulnerable, even though he doesn’t cry on demand or anything (because trivia, he always claimed that he wasn’t able to!)


      • Thanks for the heads-up about the questionable content…it looks like I won’t be watching The Sand Pebbles anytime soon, but at least I can add it to my list of Things To Watch When I Get Older. 🙂 I agree with what you said about HIFH being a little too violent at times – I was really surprised by a couple scenes (mainly Kolinsky and Henshaw’s deaths) the first time I watched it, since they were about the most violent movie scenes I’d ever watched (since I have to watch most films with all my younger siblings, most of the stuff we watch tends to be preeeetty tame). But I do think it’s very realistic.


      • I’ve never managed to watch all of The Sand Pebbles because it depresses me. About the only other McQueen movies I’ve seen that you haven’t are Bullitt (quite violent) and The Thomas Crown Affair (some sexual content and not as good as I want it to be overall). I always feel like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen Steve McQueen in a million things,” but really I’ve just seen a handful of his things over and over and over and over and over…


  3. So I just watched this, and yeah! It’s amazing! I love the Steve McQueen, the King of Cool, was listed in the credits as the Cooler King! And the music is so awesome! It reminds me of Hogan’s Heroes! In fact, the whole first part of this movie reminded me of Hogan’s Heroes! Oh the Good Luck scene!!! And wasn’t Mac the one who warned about not speaking English!! I liked Hendley. Probably cuz he was an American. And the Fourth of July celebration was wonderful until Ives… And the last scene was sort of happy! (I loved the music repeating!) Thanks for reviewing this! It really piqued my interest! I’m now a Steve McQueen fan!


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