Holiday Classics: The Great Escape (1963)

It was raining in London for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  It was also raining in Brno, Czech Republic for our long, long jubilee weekend, so I reached for The Great Escape.

The Great Escape is a holiday tradition in the UK, although it is more associated with Boxing Day.  In the old days, when we only had four terrestrial TV channels, The Great Escape seemed to be on every Boxing Day.  The kids played with their new toys, the women chatted and the men retreated to the living room to watch Preston Sturges’ rousing POW escape drama.

In fact, the association is so strong, that watching it again years later made me yearn for a turkey & stuffing sandwich.  In the beginning of June.

The Germans are fed up with allied POWs breaking out of their camps and wasting their valuable resources rounding them up again.  They make the rather eyebrow-raising choice to put all the escape artists in one camp, or, as gentlemanly commandant Colonel von Luger puts it, “all our rotten eggs in one basket.”

Maybe it’s our cynical worldview these days, but it seems a questionable decision.  Especially when SBO Ramsey (James Donaldson) calmly and blatantly tells von Luger it is their duty to escape.

Von Luger acknowledges this.  He’s a gentleman of the Luftwaffe, and also entrusts the wily assortment of escape artists with tools, drawing materials – all the good stuff they need for a massive breakout attempt.

Out in the yard, the new arrivals are sizing up the possibilities in the supposedly high security camp.  “Cooler King” Hilts (Steve McQueen) thinks he has found a blind spot by the fence between guard towers.

“Tunnel King” Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) and “Manufacturer” Sedgewick (James Coburn) try their luck disguising themselves as a Russian work party leaving the camp.  “The Mole” Archie Ives (Angus Lennie) and a few others hide in the back of trucks.

All these initial attempts are thwarted, and Hilts and Ives make their first trip to solitary confinement, where they forge an immediate bond.

Squadron Leader Bartlett, or “Big X” (Richard Attenborough) is also released into von Luger’s custody.  Bartlett has been enjoying the hospitality of the Gestapo, and is warned if he tries to escape again and is caught, he will be shot.

Predictably, the Big X’s arrival in the camp is bad news for the trusting Von Luger.  Bartlett immediately calls a meeting and announces his plans for the biggest breakout ever known – three tunnels, Tom, Dick & Harry, and 250 men out of the camp.

Other players are introduced.  There is “Scrounger” Hendley (James Grant), a louche, faintly dandified RAF Flyer, who rooms with “Forger” Blythe (Donald Pleasance) a mild-mannered tea addict with rapidly diminishing eyesight.

Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McAllum), “Dispersal”  is charged with devising ingenious ways to get rid off tonnes of dirt from the tunnels.  “Intelligence” Mac MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) creates a warm impression as Big X’s sidekick, and his response to “Good Luck” is an excellent payoff to an earlier scene.

The Great Escape is a long movie, but wastes little of its running time.  The film is divided roughly into three parts; arrival at the camp, planning & escaping, and evading capture.  The tone is good natured and nostalgic throughout, and Elmer Bernstein’s memorable score makes sure you know where you are supposed to be emotionally.

The film’s emotional core is centered around two Brit-Yank relationships, Hilts & Ives, and Hendley & Blythe, although the dynamic is very different.

Hilts is the cocky hotshot American flyer, and Ives the runty, cheeky Scot who idolizes him.  He follows Hilts’ schemes back into the cooler each time, even though he is cracking up from time in solitary.  I think Hilts is mostly to blame for Ives’ fate – after all, if I was sitting in the cooler listening to Hilts bounce his fucking ball against the wall for weeks on end, I’d go Wire Happy too.

Hendley and Blythe’s relationship is satisfying, perhaps more convincing because Garner and Pleasance were both in POW Camps in real life.  Hendley is protective and sympathetic towards Blythe, who in turn plays the mild-mannered Brit card to manipulate his handsome, conniving room mate.

There are many classic scenes to enjoy, from the American’s 4th July celebrations, “Tunnel King” Danny’s ill-timed revelation he is a closet claustrophobic, to Hilts’ still thrilling motorbike chase.

The opening caption advises The Great Escape is “A true story”.  Even without knowing all the real events, it is clear there is a “Based on” missing somewhere, and the film has been criticized for playing fast and loose with the facts.

It doesn’t matter, though – this isn’t Schindler’s List, and the real horrors of World War II are faraway from this enjoyable escape adventure.  It’s easy to see why it became a Boxing Day favourite in Britain.

WWII shapes the nation’s view of itself, and The Great Escape assures us that we were the good guys, and generously asserts that some of the Fritz weren’t so bad either.  At Christmas, it brought generations together – the grandfathers who fought in the conflict, and the fathers and sons who listened to the stories about it.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 05/06/2012, in Adventure, Drama, Entertainment, Film, G, Movies, Uncategorized, War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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