|Great Escape, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 31 March 1998|
Maybe the success of Saving Private Ryan, which in content, if not style, is a classic war movie, will prompt the revival of some war-movie subgenres, such as the prisoner-of-war movie. Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 of 1953 set very high standards -- but The Great Escape comes close dramatically, and in terms of scale and scope, surpasses Wilder's great entry. And unlike Wilder's sardonic tale, The Great Escape is one of the best-loved war movies ever made. Even today, more than 35 years after it was made, it's easy to find people who will declare it their favorite movie. Seeing it again shows why it has achieved such long-lasting fame.
This is the prisoner-of-war movie as epic, with a huge cast, elaborate sets and an epic-length running time of two minutes under three hours. John Sturges, who produced and directed, was at the peak of his fame and abilities when he made this outstanding movie, and although it's clearly an artifact of its time, it's so well made, with such an engrossing story and appealing characters that it's as close to timeless as a movie like this can be. Working from the book by Paul Brickhill, James Clavell and W.R. Burnett crafted a well-structured screenplay; the characters are directly presented, well-delineated, and treated scrupulously fairly. Even the German commandant, who tends to sympathize with his prisoners, is presented honestly.
The Germans were plagued by escape attempts from their prisoner of war camps, particularly by the highly-motivated British, that they placed all their most troublesome escapees (mostly from the RAF) in one well-guarded camp. This, of course, wasn't really a very good idea, since 600 of the prisoners immediately started scheming on a way to break out -- but to break out en masse. Ultimately, on the night of March 24, 1944, 76 prisoners did manage to escape, the largest mass escape of World War II. The movie tells of the events leading up to the escape, and what happened afterward. There is some historical fudging -- few if any Americans were really in the camp, there was no motorcycle chase or plane theft, etc. -- but basically the film tells, in broad strokes, a fascinating true story.
Sturges cast a few of his stars from The Magnificent Seven -- Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn -- and James Garner was added for star value, but the rest of the cast is authentically British, and very good. Richard Attenborough and James Donald are both particularly fine, and Donald Pleasence brings an air of authenticity -- he really was a prisoner of war in World War II -- although his role has the phoniest elements. McQueen seems kind of shoehorned into the movie, with his character spending much of his time in solitary, bouncing a baseball against the wall, but he's still the actor people remember most from this movie, because of his sheer star power, a study in subdued flamboyance.
Aside from presenting the entire film uncut (thanks to dual-layer printing) in its full wide-screen glory, the best aspect of the DVD is the excellent documentary on the making of the film, prepared by Steve Rubin and others as a labor of sheer love. Among other things, it reveals that the motorcycle chase, which McQueen insisted be added to the film, is mostly a matter of McQueen as the prisoner being chased by McQueen as a German soldier. The other features, such as a trivia list and production notes, are welcome, but the documentary makes this an especially attractive package.