It should come as no surprise that, when asked by “Sight & Sound” to name the ten best movies of all time, pop-culture sponge Quentin Tarantino picked The Great Escape. It is the post-war studio system at its finest, filled with so much that true cinephiles love to see in older movies. I don’t want to say clichés, but…think of it this way: I saw The Great Escape recently on the big screen, a beat-up print, grainy and swimming, and I loved every second of it. It is a Movie, in the truest sense of the word.
Like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, The Great Escape was originally intended to play straight and we feel its emotions sincerely. But we also LOVE the campiness, the cheese. We love loathsome movie Nazis who spit out every syllable like an insult, scowl ceaselessly, and then get blown away in sidewalk cafés by wine-guzzling French Resistance fighters. We love recognizing the Gestapo guy because he’s wearing a leather trenchcoat. We love characters that talk to themselves for our convenience and any movie that has the palm-forward British salute can’t be all bad. There are about a half-dozen things spelled out that should have been left for us to decipher, and fans of spotting unintentional or subliminal homo-eroticism in old movies will not go away disappointed. The score by Elmer Bernstein is one of the most infectious and hum-able and the cast includes three of the Magnificent Seven. And if you want to, you can probably cite The Great Escape for all sorts of old Hollywood flaws, for not representing minority characters, for painting a too-rosy picture of World War II, for altering history, and things that like that. But The Great Escape works in the most simple, fundamental way a movie can: there is a wide array of sympathetic characters and we can’t wait to know what happens to them next.
Also, if you saw The Great Escape as an eight-year-old boy it was probably the best movie you’d ever seen. There’s a secret escape organization, secret signals and door knocks, and boundless ingenuity when it comes to tunneling. The Nazis are the repressive forces of authority—parents and teachers—and for the most part the punishment they mete out come across like a D-hall or a call home. The Allied officers in the prison camp never pull rank because they’re more like a class of boys than military men; The Great Escape is perhaps spiritually as close to The Breakfast Club as it is to Saving Private Ryan. The boys work on their tunnels through the night with the kind of myopic determination of children who really have something on the brain. One is reminded of the final act of Huckleberry Finn in which Tom and Huck are delighted by the prospect of spending the rest of their lives digging Jim out of his imprisonment, even passing the task onto their children. Even when Our Heroes meet their various ends—some good, some bad, some terrible—yes, it is effective, but it’s almost like being eliminated in a game of dodgeball. And not only is there no romantic subplot in The Great Escape—the worst thing a boy need tolerate in a movie—there is not even a single speaking part for any woman in the whole film. It is a movie beloved by dads and uncles and teenage boys everywhere.
If 172 minutes seems a trifle much to spend on prisoners, when we could be watching people blow stuff up elsewhere, think of a POW camp as the ultimate existential crisis. All the prisoners’ needs are provided for, yet their identity is at stake if they sit back and do nothing. All officers have a sworn duty to escape or harass the enemy as much as possible, the movie claims. (I believe The Great Escape’s assertion that there is such an oath, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t really exist.) We should remember an Allied soldier captured in late 1939 has about five years of imprisonment ahead of him, worse than a normal convict’s time because the soldier has no contact with the outside world and no idea how much longer the fighting might last.
The set-up is classic: the Luftwaffe decides to put all the worst Allied prisoners into one super-camp. These are mostly British pilots that were shot down two, even three years earlier. But the Germans have goofed: now all the best minds at escaping are able to pool their collective resources, and the Allied prisoners hatch a plan to dig three tunnels simultaneously and free 250 men in a single evening. Leading the escape attempt is a RAF captain (Sir Richard Attenborough) who the SS threatens odiously “if you try to escape again, you vill be shot!”
Watching the movie again recently I thought it began a little slow, what with the cute introductions to all the characters, but then the ingenuity of its escape artists brought out the eight-year-old in me with a vengeance. The prisoners develop a complicated system of signals to let each other know when the “goons” are nowhere to be seen. They dig inside their huts in time with the digging they are permitted to do outside. They rig hidden pockets to sneak dirt into their new gardens. They raid the walls, bedposts, and furniture for every last bit of wood to shore up their tunnels. They employ an aerial reconnaissance photographer to forge documents. A tailor-turned-pilot is able to cut uniforms into civilian clothes and the POWs take up German. The ingenuous transformation of one object into another fascinates me to no end and I was putty in the movie’s hands.
Steve McQueen’s slack-jawed, alternately clever and alternately dopey American pilot is billed first. He mouths off to the Kommandant (Hannes Messemer) and thrills us with several motorcycle escapades that are all the more dramatically exciting when we think of how narratively useless they are. Great images are established of him on a bike, fleeing from waves and waves of stupid-helmeted Nazis, and we think because the shots are long it’s a stunt double, but then he roars up close to the camera and we realize, yes, it’s McQueen doing his own riding. Then we recognize why in The Tao of Steve McQueen is held up as the ultimate example of American manhood. When he revs up that motorcycle and circles and gets a running start and jumps that barbed wire fence, God help me every drop of testosterone in my body cheered. He gets D-halls most of all and defiantly, American-ly bounces his baseball off the wall of his cell in solitary confinement.
Of course McQueen and Attenborough are supported by a wide and sympathetic array of sharply drawn characters. The great James Garner, who is one of most effortless and naturalistic actors to ever draw breath, is the camp’s “scrounger,” able to locate tools and equipment you wouldn’t think could be smuggled into a POW camp, sometimes through ingenuity and sometimes by smooth-talking the guards. His bunkmate is the mousy forger played by Donald Pleasence, who seems to have modeled his performance on Winnie-the-Pooh. James Coburn is a rough-tongued Australian tunneler, Gordon Jackson is Attenborough’s right-hand, and Angus Lennie is a Scottish jockey-turned-pilot who gets chummy with McQueen when they try escaping on the same day. Charles Bronson is the chief architect of the tunnel and just happens to suffer from claustrophobia. It is only through the encouragement of John Leyton’s pilot that he is able to escape at all. What do I mean by encouragement? Well, do you remember that unintentional homo-eroticism I mentioned earlier? But I’m confident that that’s only my overactive dirty mind; within most groups of boys there’s usually some pairing off, some declaration of a best-est buddy-hood. In “The Great Escape” it’s Attenborough with Jackson, McQueen with Lennie, Bronson with Leyton, Pleasence with Garner, etc.
(Reading this aloud to my wife, she keeps saying “That was James Garner? The RAF captain was the old guy from Jurassic Park? I recognize them when they’re older…”)
As for the bad guys: “Zis is not a matter for levity!” But, then again, when you’re a movie Nazi, nothing is a matter for levity, except perhaps the pain and suffering of your helpless enemies or the desecration of their flags. The Gestapo of The Great Escap are so hate-filled that they can even make the closing of briefcase contemptuous. And if you want to shake your fist at the screen when some nasty little Hitler youth wanders on, go right ahead. You can tell the prison camp Kommandant isn’t such a bad guy because his “heil Hitler” is without feeling and draws worried stares from those swine in the SS. The Great Escape does skip some clichés from which it may have benefited; the Nazis, for instance, do not hold their cigarettes between their pinkies and ring fingers, which everyone knows is how movie Nazis ought to smoke.
But The Great Escape does let people talk to themselves when there’s no one else around and we might not be smart enough to figure out what they’re doing. The forger does get to mutter “I can’t see a thing!” in case we didn’t catch on to all the out-of-focus shots and McQueen declares hungrily “Switzerland!” as he spots the Alps and revs his engine. Still, the occasions when The Great Escape beats us over the head are counteracted by subtler moments; no discussion is made of why the cane-carrying and limping Allied commander does not join those escaping. But maybe it must be impossible for him to join the boys in their escape. He’s too much of a grown-up that just happens to be on the boys’ side. He’s only an honorary boy, like an older brother or a young uncle or a cool teacher; he can guide them but not join them. The commander is played by James Donald, you know, the “Madness! Madness!” doctor from Bridge on the River Kwai.
The Great Escape is the clean and straightforward work of director-producer John Sturges, who helmed many of the big Cinemascope epics of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Modern audiences might find them just a leeeeetle bit on the slow side, and they include The Magnificent Seven and The Hallelujah Trail. The surprisingly brutal Michael Caine/Donald Sutherland/Robert Duvall thriller The Eagle Has Landed (1977) is among his final pictures, and is one of my favorite “Nazis-with-British-accents” flicks. Based on a true story, the screenplay for The Great Escape is largely written by novelist James Clavell, who wrote the novels Shogun, Taipan, and Noble House. The escape, when it finally happens after several false starts, is timed perfectly, with air raid signals, roving strobe lights, and it’s amazing how much suspense is drawn from men running across twenty of feet of grass in the dark. The exploits of the men on the loose are equally suspenseful as they ride trains next to soldiers and try to fool the SS with their German and their forged documents.
(There was a television miniseries in the late 1980s called The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, starring Christopher Reeve, Judd Hirsch, and Ian McShane, and it’s a fine way to spend four hours-minus-commercial breaks. Rather than simply tell the same story all over again, it is equally devoted to the escape and to the capture of war criminals involved with the execution of prisoners. The Great Escape II is also a good example of how a modern movie that sticks to historical facts is usually not as much fun as an older movie that doesn’t mind cutting corners. As for some quality parodying of The Great Escape, check out The Simpsons’ episode where Maggie is locked up in a daycare center, and the entirety of the film Chicken Run.)
It’s hard to call The Great Escape an important or a groundbreaking movie. Bridge on the River Kwai in many ways tells the same story in a deeper, more sophisticated manner. The Manchurian Candidate and Lawrence of Arabia were both released the previous year and have not dated as much, and Dr. Strangelove was to turn heads the following year, as it still turns heads. Godard and Truffaut had already kicked off the French New Wave and Fellini had already made La Dolce Vita. Across the other ocean Ozu and Kurosawa were equally hard at work, one shooting carefully-documented everyday life and the other shooting arrows through people’s necks. But The Great Escape is a great movie because it is a style of moviemaking at its best. It is the finest example of an idea or an image we once had of World War II that we have decided might not be so accurate anymore. And it is enormously entertaining.
Finished July 11th, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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