From United Artists and
The Mirisch Company
Directed by John Sturges
I cannot think of anything this film doesn't have going for it. I guess it's simply a flawless piece of moviemaking. It had an exciting, compelling story. It was solidly written, expertly directed and smartly acted. It became a huge blockbuster, turned Steve McQueen into a megastar and is one of the finest war films of this or any other decade. When one considers how fine a war film it is, one should recall it has no combat or battle sequences. What it does have, of course, is a most compelling escape story that captured the attention of audiences worldwide. Hollywood deserves to be proud of itself for producing so entertaining a piece of celluloid.
It couldn't have been delivered by a more capable director than John Sturges, although he said that it took him eight years to get it off the ground. Most studios saw little chance of revenue for another war movie but little United Artists (and the Mirisches) came through as they often did. Sturges was one of the best of his breed at male-dominated themes with action-adventure being part of the thread. His work usually involved drivingly forceful stories. He hired three actors, McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson from their earlier, mighty success together, The Magnificent Seven (1960). He had also worked with McQueen in Never So Few (1959).
In case you don't know or remember, it was based on a true story. It was based on a book of the same name by Paul Brickhill who was there. (The adapted screenplay was by the esteemed novelist, James Clavell.) The Germans built a camp, Stalag Luft III, some 90 miles southeast of Berlin in a Polish city named Sayan. Over a few years it housed over 10,000 POWs. The group our story is concerned with is the first group.
This was a group of captives who liked one another and worked together as a team. A funny thing is how it showed the arrivals already looking for angles in which they can escape. Richard Attenborough's character takes charge of an escape plan, with Gordon Jackson as his reliable assistant. They are totally supported by the group's leader, James Donald, who will stay behind. The plan is to build three tunnels (called Tom, Dick and Harry) and allow an astonishing 250 prisoners to escape. Of course, to add to the suspense, it doesn't quite work out as planned.
Attenborough arranges for several people to assume important roles. James Garner is the scrounger, a man who can come up with seemingly anything that is needed. Donald Pleasence is a forger. James Coburn makes tools and other things that are required. Charles Bronson and John Leyton are the chief tunnel diggers. Others make clothing, do surveying, handle intelligence and so on. Steve McQueen escapes once on his own, gets a lay of the land on the outside and returns to tell the others his findings. The story, of course, enlarges as we watch each man handle his task.
They come up with the wood that is needed by raiding every available piece of it around the camp. David McCallum's job is to come up with a plan to get rid of all the dirt, the result of digging three tunnels, right under the noses of the Germans. Along with an ample supply of tension, there are moments of humor, as well, most of it supplied by McQueen. At one point and with their captors' apparent approval, they make lethal moonshine. As they dole it out to the guys, McQueen warns them to not smoke right away.
One tunnel is discovered but that was the point for three in the first place. The German's expect that there will be an escape attempt so when a tunnel is found, they think they have stopped it. When it is time to go, it's a tricky prospect. It is first discovered by McQueen, who goes first, that the tunnel, which was supposed to go from under one barracks and out into the woods, that it is 20 feet short and in full view of the guards if they happen to be looking. Luckily, they're going at night but it is still risky. When 77 or so have safely made it, the escape is discovered 178 will not make it.
My favorite part was the last section, after the escape. Through roll call the Germans know who got away and they go after them... and my breathing gets heavier. The story breaks into six segments as it follows the escapees. Attenborough and Jackson are together; McCallum, looking very German is off on his own; Garner and a newly-blinded Pleasence are at one time on the same train as the others but ultimately wind up stealing a small plane; Coburn grabs a bicycle and heads toward Spain; Bronson and Leyton get to a large cargo ship; and McQueen, as we know, hops on a motorcycle. Three of them make it, most are killed, two return to camp.
Oh yes, about McQueen and that motorcycle. Exciting as it was, we know, don't we, that he didn't do it all? His good pal, Bud Ekins, did the jump and was also the one wrapped up in the barbed wire. McQ did most of the rest. It's likely what lured him to the film in the first place... and working with Sturges again.
McQ was his usual pain in the ass. His real-life nextdoor neighbor, Garner, said that McQ didn't like his part and didn't like that he didn't come out as being a real hero. Shortly one could hear Clavell's typewriter tap-tap-tapping again to rewrite some of the scenes so the star would be happy. Oddly, he isn't in much of the first hour because his character is spending time alone in the cooler. At the time, he and Garner didn't get on so well.
The acting was all quite believable. Actors in war films don't usually wind up on awards list but the performances were certainly what they needed to be. An actor I have long liked but found to be wooden, Charles Bronson, turned in a rare emotional performance that impressed me. Despite being the main tunnel digger, he is claustrophobic and nearly loses his mind. He is comforted at this point and other times as well by Leyton. Their scenes together have a homoerotic touch. I wonder if Bronson knew.
Another interested piece about Bronson is that he and McCallum were in the same movie. I wonder if McCallum knew that when he introduced his wife, Jill Ireland, to Bronson that one day she would exchange one man for the other.
Kudos certainly need to go to the guys who did the art and set decoration. The real camp was mostly gone so it all had to be recreated and was housed inside Bavaria Studios. It was a wonderful job. The same could be said for Elmer Bernstein's brilliant and memorable musical score.
The Great Escape, pure and simple, is great entertainment. Get out the chips and guacamole, the pretzels, Cheetos and a brewskie and see it again. In the meantime, have a peek at its most famous scene: