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Thursday, July 19, 2012

THE GREAT ESCAPE -- movie review by porfle

When I was a kid, there were some movies that I looked forward to seeing on TV with the same keen anticipation I felt for an impending holiday.  The annual airing of THE WIZARD OF OZ was one, of course.  But equal to that perennial favorite in my mind was John Sturges' World War II blockbuster THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), which, for awhile back in the 60s, would also show up on the tube about once a year.  CBS would usually show the 172-minute film in two parts on Thursday and Friday nights, meaning that after the first half I was forced to suffer an excruciating 24 hours waiting for the payoff.  But it was worth it.  And now that I have it on DVD and can watch it anytime I want, the old magic remains undiminished.

Based on a true story recounted in the book by former WWII POW Paul Brickhill, with a screenplay by James Clavell (SHOGUN, KING RAT), the film takes place mainly in a German prisoner-of-war camp that has been designed to contain those Allied captives who are continually trying to escape.  As the commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hans Messmer) tells Group Captain Ramsey (a solid, dignified James Donald): "We are, in effect, placing all our rotten eggs into one basket.  And we intend to watch that basket very carefully."  Such a plan is doomed to backfire, of course, as this congregation of escape-happy soldiers immediately begins plotting the biggest, most elaborate POW escape ever. 

Richard Attenborough (JURASSIC PARK) plays "Big X", the leader and mastermind, who coordinates the digging of three separate tunnels.  His objective is to get so many men out of the camp--as many as 250--that the Nazis will be forced to devote thousands of soldiers to tracking them down.  It's fascinating to see the lengths our heroes must go to in order to obtain tools for digging and wood for shoring up the tunnels, and how they manage to disperse all those tons of dirt, without the guards detecting anything.  And as amazing and improbable as it all may seem, every pertinent detail of the escape is based on fact, while the film's characters are composites of actual people.  One of them, "Tunnel King" Wally Floody, served as a technical adviser during filming.

David McCallum ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") is Ashley-Pitt, the "Dispersal" expert.  Donald Pleasence, a real-life WWII POW, plays Blythe, a mild-mannered birdwatcher who serves as "The Forger" of false identity papers and such, while his roommate, American flyer Hendley (James Garner) is "The Scrounger" who can be counted on to obtain whatever is needed, chiefly through blackmailing the guards.  The odd-couple friendship of Blythe and Hendley is one of the most emotionally compelling elements of the story, especially when Blythe later loses his eyesight and is told he must stay behind until Hendley insists on taking him out of the tunnel with him.

Charles Bronson and John Leyton play "Tunnel Kings" Danny and Willy, without whose tireless efforts and expertise the escape would be impossible.  Danny, it turns out, suffers from claustrophia, though he forces himself to dig because he "must get out."  This malady will prove very inconvenient on the night of the escape when panic overtakes him at last.  Another prisoner on the verge of the breaking point is the "wire-happy" Ives (Angus Lennie), a diminutive Scotsman whose prolonged confinement keeps him a hair's breadth away from making a desperate attempt to climb the fence.  And James Coburn is Sedgwick, a droll Aussie pilot whose knack for building something out of nothing makes him the indispensible "Manufacturer."

These rich characterizations, along with a wealth of suspenseful situations and some great comedy relief, keep things rolling along until the night of the big breakout, which is one of the most gripping sequences ever filmed.  Everything that could go wrong does, yet seventy-six men manage to escape before the guards finally get wise and come down on them with guns blazing. 

For the final third of the film we see the escapees desperately trying to make their way out of the country via trains, planes, automobiles, or on foot.  Since we've had so much time to get to know and care about these characters, and empathize with their desire to get back home, their skillfully cross-edited stories pack a substantial emotional payoff--especially when we see them recaptured, killed during flight, or coldbloodedly executed as "spies." 

The post-escape part of the story is the most fictionalized element of THE GREAT ESCAPE, but that's fine with me--the actual events have been augmented with more action and thrills, while maintaining the spirit of what these men went through.  And I can't imagine a sequence in any movie that is more engrossing or involving, for so long, as this one. 

Which brings me to the best part of the film, for me anyway--Steve McQueen's iconic Capt. Virgil Hilts, dubbed "The Cooler King" since his attempted escapes and disrespect for authority keep him locked up in a cell more than anyone else in camp.  At first he's a loner trying to escape independently, whether through the wire or via a wild "human mole" scheme he almost pulls off with his pal Ives, but eventually he comes around and becomes one of the most important participants in Big X's escape plan.  (In actuality, all of the American prisoners were moved to a different part of the camp shortly before the escape, but that's a quibble I'm willing to overlook.)

By the time the escape occurs, we feel almost as confined as the characters themselves and are in need of a catharsis that can only be provided by some good old freewheeling action.  So when Hilts steals a motorcycle and makes a mad, cross-country dash for Switzerland with the Nazis hot on his heels, charging through checkpoints and hurtling airborn over barricades, with Elmer Bernstein's soul-stirring musical score soaring triumphantly in the background, we can feel the delirious rush of freedom.

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