Every movie site, blog, and bookstore is filled with “must-see” lists; virtual bucket lists of cinematic tasks. Your friends and family members loudly exclaim: “What?! You’ve never seen [insert title here]!” Let’s face it, many of those flicks are boring and/or no longer relevant. However, not all these suggestions are inconsequential; there are plenty on those lists that stand the test of time and still deserve the title of classic. The Great Escape is one of those films. It has the perfect combination of elements: great actors, an interesting story, just the right amount of humor, good pacing, and solid filmmaking. Who knew a WWII movie could be so fun?
Although the text in the opening credits proclaim that this is a true story in which very little has been changed, don’t expect too much realism here. It is based on a book of a survivor’s account of the escape, but aspects have been greatly exaggerated and the Nazis’ violence downplayed. Important details are left out (like the help prisoners got from folks back home), and some of the characters are composites of the 600 men who assisted with the plot. Even though there are a few depressing moments befitting a WWII film, Great Escape is straight-up, classical-style Hollywood action at its best. It’s Grand Illusion (1937) without all the drama and class warfare.
The Nazis mistakenly throw all of their most troublesome, escapist Allied prisoners in the new high security officers’ camp. The filmmakers drop you right into the action, no lengthy introduction needed, as the cast of rogues begin casing the joint as soon as they arrive. Escaping is not merely for freedom, but rather taken as each man’s sworn duty to their country; it diverts enemy soldiers and resources away from the front, and generally harasses the Germans. Mastermind “Big X” (Richard Attenborough) enters the prison and devises a plan to excavate three tunnels. The stellar ensemble cast of Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, and James Coburn play POWs assigned various jobs according to their skillset (“Scrounger,” “Tunnel King,” “Forger,” “Manufacturer,” etc.). The rest of the story unfolds as an enjoyable procedural showing the gathering of materials, creation of the tunnels, and of the crew concocting new and clever ways to distract the guards and dispose of the dirt. The whole last hour is devoted to the escape and fate of the heroes we have come to care about.
This, and Bullitt (1968), are the moving images that cemented McQueen’s legacy as the cinematic king of cool. His famous motorcycle sequence at the end of the film (and the incredible score) has been referenced numerous times since the movie’s release. That is only one of many memorable moments; the real heart of the film is in the relationships between men of varied countries, classes, and careers, and the sacrifices they all made without a second thought. The Great Escape is part of pop culture; one of those flicks that you know about whether you realize it or not. At almost three hours, the film runs a little long, but it is still one to add to your “must-see” list.