THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
THE GREAT ESCAPE poster artwork
Produced and Directed by JOHN STURGES
Written by JAMES CLAVELL and W.R. BURNETT
REVIEW BY CHRISTOPHER WEEDMAN
Has there ever been a war film that was more enjoyable than The Great Escape? Sure, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket were all remarkable viewing experiences, but were they as fun to watch? Not in my opinion. What makes The Great Escape superior is the fact that its main purpose is not to convey some deep moral message or make a political statement, it is simply to entertain.
James Clavell (The Fly) and W.R. Burnett (High Sierra) combined their skills to write this very moving and witty tale, which is based on a true story, of British and American POWs combining efforts to make a massive escape from one of the toughest Nazi prison camps in all of Germany. The camp has in its possession a very motley crew of characters, including Steve McQueen (Bullitt), James Garner (TV's Maverick), Richard Attenborough (Jurassic Park), Charles Bronson (Death Wish), Donald Pleasence (Halloween), and James Coburn (Charade). They are all specialists in particular areas of escape. There is a tunneler, a scrounger, a document forger, a tailor, etc. You name it...they have it. Clavell and Burnett do a fine job fleshing out all of their characters. They are not cardboard characters. Most films have a bunch of one-note characters: the leader, the comedian, the coward, etc. Not The Great Escape. All of its characters have many aspects to their personalities and by the end of the picture, you feel like you have known them all of your life. This is what makes the film so powerful.
Few onscreen friendships are as endearing as the one between Hendley "The Scrounger" (Garner) and Blythe "The Forger" (Pleasence). They seem like an unlikely pair, but there is an unquestionable feeling of warmth exchanged by the two characters. Hendley is a shrewd bargainer and a master manipulator, and Blythe is much more reserved and just goes about his duties; in most Hollywood films, Hendley would take Blythe under his wing (a'la Hal Ashby's The Last Detail) and show him the ways of the world, but this is not the usual fare. Interestingly, it is Blythe that teaches Hendley and gets him acquainted with the finer things in life: a cup of tea, bird watching, photography, etc. Hendley takes to Blythe almost immediately and their bond is enormous. A bond that remains strong, even when tragedy strikes.
Director Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) and his writers made a bold move and didn't make The Great Escape an action extravaganza, which would have been a much safer decision. While the film features a magnificent motorcycle sequence and some suspenseful chase scenes, it is more of a character study than anything else. Like the coming home from war film The Best Years of Our Lives, The Great Escape is less about World War II happenings and more about how it has affected the film characters' lives. I urge you to see The Great Escape, if you enjoy it just half as much as I do, you are in store for a very remarkable experience.
Review © 1997 THE MAN WITH THE HYPNOTIC EYE. All Rights Reserved.
Poster artwork © 1963 UNITED ARTISTS. All Rights Reserved.
Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport
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