THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
THE GREAT ESCAPE poster artwork
STEVE MCQUEEN.....Virgil Hilts
CHARLES BRONSON.....Dany Velinski
DONALD PLEASENCE.....Colin Blythe
HANNES MESSEMER.....Von Luger
Directed and Produced by JOHN STURGES
Written by JAMES CLAVELL and W.R. BURNETT
REVIEW BY BOSLEY CROWTHER
The boast is that every detail in the new film, The Great Escape, is "the way it happened," that every incident in this gaudy account of a massive breakout of British and American flyers from a maximum-security German prison camp in World War II was based on fact, as documented by Paul Brickhill in his 1950 book.
That may be. I've no way of proving that a few of the wilder episodes in this overlong melodrama, which opened yesterday at the DeMille and Coronet, are so far beyond plausibility that they could not have happened anyplace. And since I've seen most of them in other pictures about cheeky prisoners-of-war---three or four in the past year---I must assume that they are derived from common lore.
But nobody is going to con me---at least not the director, John Sturges---into believing that the spirit of defiance in any prisoner-of-war camp anywhere was arrogant, romantic and Rover Boyish as it is made to appear in this film. And nobody's going to induce me, with shameless Hollywood cliffhanging tricks designed to stretch the tension until you holler and with a thumping Elmer Bernstein musical score, to surrender my reason and my emotions to the sort of fiction fabricated here.
I find it artificial from the outset-from the point where a string of trucks arrive in the new prison compound and disgorges a crowd of swaggering bucks, nondescript British and American fellows, snarling rudely and pointedly casing the joint.
There's Steve McQueen, surly and sophomoric, tediously whacking a baseball into a glove, which he continues to do at intervals throughout the picture, providing one of the most moronic running gags in years. There's James Garner, silken and mysterious, light-fingeredly lifting crucial tools from trucks without a single guard's noticing the pilfering---in a maximum-security prison yet!
Then there are all sorts of shady and cunningly nicknamed characters---Charles Bronson as the "Tunnel King," famed for his skill at digging tunnels, as some characters in other prison pictures are skilled at picking locks or cracking safes; Donald Pleasence as "The Forger," James Coburn as "The Manufacturer." And in the office of the prison commandant are James Donald standing stiffly and serenely as the senior British officer and Hannes Messemer barking shrilly and dropping his eyes nervously as the Luftwaffe commandant.
It is callow and obvious play-acting, and the whole picture is that way, aimed to inveigle the viewer with blunt, chauvinistic showiness---all 2 hours and 50 minutes of it.
To be sure, the film is surfacely engrossing, if you can simply devote yourself to the worry of digging that tunnel and then to trying to get away when you and most of the principal characters have scrambled out of that hole outside the camp. And I must say there are a few moments when Richard Attenborough as the chief engineer of the whole project demonstrates some impressive strength and poise.
But for much longer than is artful or essential, The Great Escape grinds out its tormenting story without a peek beneath the surface of any man, without a real sense of human involvement. It's a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men.
Review © 1963 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
Poster artwork © 1963 UNITED ARTISTS. All Rights Reserved.
Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport
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