Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Movie #217: The Great Escape

The Great Escape is a 1963 movie telling the true story (though the way in which it is told is not entirely true) of an escape from a German POW camp in World War II. Starring, as I'm sure you know, Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and a lot of other people.

A group of POWs, mostly English, arrive at a camp in Poland. Their ranking officer (James Donald) is told by the camp's commander (Hannes Messemer) that they're not to try and escape; the officer replies that it's their duty to try, and to fuck with the Reich in the process. The commander acknowledges this (he doesn't seem a hugely patriotic Nazi). Shortly after, Bartlett (Attenborough), a veteran camp-escaper, arrives with the SS, and is told that if he escapes again, he'll be shot upon recapture. So naturally he immediately sets about organizing a huge escape attempt, trying to get 250 men out.

The movie details their escape pretty faithfully, from what I'm reading, aside from the fact that their were more Dutchmen and Canadians and not quite so many Americans. McQueen plays an American officer and engineer who isn't immediately interested in helping the Brits with their tunnels, but after his buddy Ives (Angus Lennie) is shot, he agrees to escape, map the area, and be recaptured. The night of the escape, the POWs realize they're twenty feet short of the woods they wanted to use as cover, but 76 get out before one of them gets impatient and fucks it all up.

Now, the only exposure I'd had to this movie before I saw it, other than Chicken Run, was Eddie Izzard's routine where he talks about it (I think it's in Glorious, but I'm not sure offhand; I know it's a gig he did in San Francisco). Anyway, he implies that Steve McQueen rides to safety on his motorcycle, while all the Brits get shot. This is not really what happens; McQueen's character does zoom off on a motorcycle (McQueen's idea), but gets recaptured and returned to the camp. Two POWs (Charles Bronson and John Leyton) escape using a boat, and James Coburn gets to France and then into Spain. Everyone else gets caught, and then the Gestapo flat-out murder 50 of them, Bartlett among them, apparently on Hitler's direct orders.

The movie is entertaining, and the famous score makes it jauntier than it would ordinarily be. It highlights some of the assumptions that different factions within the war make about each other (i.e., the Lufftwaffe vs. the Gestapo). The performances are good, though you don't get to see much of any one character; Bronson and Attenborough are probably the best realized, though I greatly enjoy James Garner's character (Garner, incidentally, was, like his character, a scrounger, but in the Korean War. My dad was in Korea, too, though I have no idea if he ever met Garner). The movie is really long, though. I won't say it drags, but like a lot of movies of its day, it takes its sweet time. But it's classic and iconic, and, if not fun to watch, necessarily, at least entertaining.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch value: Low

Next up: Greedy