The Great Escape (1953) starring Steve McQueen … Remembered

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Hey, know any good escape plans?

I did not intend for the last few reviews to feature Steve McQueen so heavily, but I was really enjoying his movies and decided to consider The Great Escape. I believe this movie has a good reputation, mostly because it made Steve McQueen a major star, but also because it just is (or was) a well-received, popular movie. I swear it is on television every other week when I check the movie channels, it’s just that popular. When it was released in 1963, it made loads of money at the box office, 11 million against a 4 million budget, as a general, heroic story. I know men like this movie as a matter of principle, drama people like it for the performances, but war movie people hate it, mostly because it’s amusing, I think. I know buddy-drama people like it for its good character interactions and the way everyone gets along. The story is based on a well-written novel, which gives the excellent cast the perfect material to deliver a solid film.

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I am evil because I am smirking, my friend.

The Great Escape is about an escape from a German POW camp by a group of prisoners, who band together for a common goal. The use of the word “great” in the title is curious, one which I think emphasizes the adventure elements of the film, rather than the gritty action or drama you might expect in war movies. This film is like something off the A-Team television show, but it goes a little further than that, as people do die, get hurt, argue, and fail. I suppose it has a balance then, which sets an audience up for adventure, while delivering drama and good performances all at the same time.

This setup is introduced with a joyous adventure march we get at the beginning of the film, contrasted against a backdrop of a prison camp.   It’s like Gilligan having fun on an island where he’s stranded with no hope of rescue and where he’ll probably die.  That’s the light tone we have here.  We meet Steve McQueen and James Garner’s characters only a few moments into the movie. They are both playing underdogs, men held by the villainous nazis at a German camp and they look around at the place as if sizing it up, right from the start. This is not a full-fledged character study. This movie is fairly simple and it is pretty black-and-white. The nazis are the bad guys, holding our heroes against their will, and killing these evil guys isn’t so bad. James Messemer plays the no-nonsense dictator of the camp to emphasize this. He has an equally evil dictator accent.

The escape attempts begin right at the beginning of the film as the rules are being established. We’re told officers have a “sworn duty” to try to escape. And they do try. Over and over. The German guards stop them so often, many of the leaders begin to smirk at the prisoner’s wit and guile. Unfortunately, McQueen is treated more harshly by the leaders for disobeying the rules, but he walks to a holding cell with a wink and a smile so we know he will try to escape again. And solitary confinement isn’t so bad.

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There better not be any dinosaurs out there.

In the meantime, we also meet some of the other officers, such as the British men. Richard Attenborough plays one of these British soldiers, who swears out a personal promise to free himself and his officers from the camp. He is more famous for his Jurassic Park role where he plays John Hammond, but he is clearly a leader here, and begins to organize everyone to plan the escape.  He’s so young here, you wouldn’t even guess that it’s the same person that’s in Jurassic Park.  

Although prior to his role as Jim Rockford, James Garner is no less quick-witted in this movie. He has a nice little scene with Donald Pleasence toward the beginning, who is a photographer and the “forger” of the escape group. In this way, every one of our heroes in this black-and-white world have a job, and contribute to the cause, fight the good fight, and all that other crap. Pleasence plays this off-color British officer who is not exactly a tough-as-nails soldier, but he is fun to watch nonetheless.

Charles Bronson plays the tunneler, a strong-willed man who tries to carve his way through the camp by going underneath it! He also has this tough, almost foreign strength about him, like a Russian you’d never want to wrestle or bet against in a boxing match. He also has intelligence, buying supplies and hiding his attempts at digging with false slabs of flooring. This part of the movie doesn’t have Steve McQueen though, until he is released from confinement about 10 or 15 minutes later. Of course, McQueen then explains his next escape plan to the doubting Brits, but they ultimately wish him good luck. I think we’re supposed to think the plan was hopelessly doomed, because McQueen and his pal are thrown back in isolation a few minutes later, without even showing us the scene of their actual escape attempt. It’s sorta amusing. McQueen marches down the hall again all muddy and they toss him in the cooler. He just smiles.

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Tea, anyone?

James Garner swipes one of the guard’s document pouches and he gives it to Donald Pleasence to use in the forging business.  Pleasence makes tea while Garner brings in chocolate and other goodies to stuff into his locker.  This illustrates how the POWs are so well-organized and how this film stretches believability very thin, but the tone is consistent throughout, so it becomes acceptable.  Steve McQueen himself is not all over the place in every scene and trying to carry the movie all by himself, as in Bullitt. No, each of the cast are fine in their own right, although McQueen’s performance is more like a rebellious everyman, not at all as gruff and unfeeling as the role he plays in Bullitt.

There are serious moments though, such as when McQueen discusses his friend, who is close to “cracking”. He must not like McQueen’s jokes. Later, this friend, Ives, is shot and killed, which prompts McQueen to give up some of his witty side to help a more serious escape attempt, which I suppose is as good a motivation as any. After one escape tunnel is discovered, the characters seem to get stressed out and desperate. James Garner and Donald Pleasence epitomize the buddy-drama in yet more good interaction, then we’re back to McQueen and a scene with him. The middle part of the movie is the best, as it limits the comedy and keeps it coming from McQueen.

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Try to catch me, you ugly Krauts!

Unfortunately, many of the escapees are re-captured and we get an 11 minute epilogue concluding the movie. This is a sad ending and we get a eulogy for the escapees who are murdered. Of those returned to the camp, James Garner and McQueen rejoin the prison, like Gilligan trying to escape the island. McQueen doesn’t lose his smirk and smile though, as if telling us that he’ll be okay in the end.  Can’t be too serious, after all.

All in all, this movie is a positive experience.  The beginning comedy is a bit overdone, but the action and sentiment shown in the last part of the movie make up for that, in my opinion.  The Great Escape is not very deep, but it has standard action and drama for a general audience.  Steve McQueen and James Garner give fine performances, though I’ll take Bullitt over this movie for my pinch of McQueen when I need it, for its modern themes and emotional drama.  And the car chases; though we get McQueen on a motorcycle in this movie, so that has to count for something, doesn’t it?  

I have to note that this movie does not fit in with many traumatic modern war movies made today, like Saving Private Ryan and Inglorious Basterds.  I just can’t watch those movies without feeling horribly moved or upset, disturbed somehow by the images.  The Great Escape dares to poke fun at war and takes many things lightly, stretching believability to the limit, though paints things in black-and-white as if to tell us not to take things too seriously and enjoy a little fun, silly antics, motorcycle chases, and pulplike heroics.  What’s wrong with that?  I don’t know about you, but I won’t feel guilty doing that!  

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