At the outset let me state that i am one big sucker for WW2 movies. My first WW2 movie was The Guns of Navaronne, and that was enough to get me hooked on to this genre forever. I just loved the guns, the soldiers, the explosions, the action sequences. And I grew up watching them, with Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen being perenial favorites. And then i watched more The Eagle Has Landed, Von Ryan’s Express, Tora, Tora, Tora, The Longest Day,Patton enough to keep me hooked. It also helped that somehow i have a major interest in anything related to WW2 or Nazi Germany. I would spend time at the local library, poring through books on WW2, the battles, the persons involved, and of course there were friends of mine who shared the same interest, and we would often keep discussing late into the night about WW2. I was totally hooked onto the adrenaline flow of these movies, before i entered the more cerebral phase of Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory, Bridge on the River Kwai etc.
One such all time favorite of mine is 1963’s The Great Escape, based on the real life story of the escape of Allied Air Force Prisoners from Stalag Luft III in 1944, a high security POW Camp built in such a way, that tunnels could not be built easily n.The movie begins with the prisoners arriving at the camp to the tune of Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful background score. The camp is manned by Col Von Luger( Hannes Messemer) which he claims to be escape proof and that none can escape from there. Most of these POW’s have a reputation of being escape artists, and the most dangerous of them all is Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett( Sir Richard Attenborough), on whom the Gestapo have put a shoot to kill, if he is found escaping.
As Von Luger says
We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket carefully.
Bartlett however is unfazed and immediately begins work on escaping. Only this time, it is going to be one of the largest escape attempts involving 250 men. And thus a plan is set in motion to execute one of the most daring and audacious escape ever attempted. Teams are organised to survey, dig, hide dirt, forge documents, provide distractions. The main characters are a motley bunch of crew ranging from the hot headed, rebellious Capt Virgil Hilts( Steve McQueen) to Flt Lt Hendley( James Garner) a man with a reputation for getting anything from a document to a camera. The tunnel digger Flt Lt Danny Velinski( Charles Bronson), the tool maker Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick( James Coburn), and the forgery expert Flt Lt Colin Blythe( Donald Pleasance) are some of the other characters involved.
The three tunnels nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry” are dug. After Tunnel 1 is discovered, efforts are concentrated on the last tunnel which however just falls 20 ft short of the woods which would give them the cover. Even then 76 men manage to escape, before the guards discover one of them comming out of the tunnel. And the escape attempt is foiled. Watch the movie to see what happens to those 76 people.
Couple of things which makes The Great Escape a cut above the standard spot the star WW2 epic prevalent during the 60’s and make it such a memorable movie.
One is the actual escape itself, the way the prisoners get together, plan, implement and execute is depicted in a brilliant manner. You get to see planning, you get to see team work, you get to see coordination. And the way the responsbilities are divided among the prisoners, with teams for surveying, teams to do the distraction by singing, teams for the look out. I mean this part is depicted superbly by director John Sturges. There is no action involved, but you are just on the edge, as you watch the prisoners execute their plans. One scene should give a sufficient example, the prisoners start to dig the tunnel, and they hear the German guards comming, in a jiffy everything is arranged, to make it normal. As the Guard walks around, he asks people what they are doing, one says i am reading a book, other says i am sleeping, but the clincher is when he comes to Danny and he replies “I am taking a shower”. The irony is the shower stands right on the spot from where the tunnel begins.
Also the bonding between prisoners is wonderfully depicted as in a moving sequence where Hilt’s friend is gunned down, while trying to escape. And we have the humour too as in this exchange
Segwick:Danny, do you speak Russian?
Danny: A little, but only one sentence.
Sedgwick: Well, let me have it, mate.
Danny: Ia vas liubliu.
edgwick: Ia ia vas… Danny: Liubliu.
Sedgwick: Liubliu? Ia vas liubliu. Ia vas liubliu. What’s it mean?
Danny: I love you.
Sedgwick: “Love you.” What bloody good is that?
Danny: I don’t know, I wasn’t going to use it myself.
The scenes which show Steve Mc Queen getting on the nerves of his captors with his smart alecky behavior is again excellent, as in this exchange.
Von Luger: Are all American officers so ill-mannered?
Hilts: Yeah, about 99 percent.
Von Luger: Then perhaps while you are with us you will have a chance to learn some. Ten days isolation, Hilts.
Hilts: CAPTAIN Hilts.
Von Luger: Twenty days.
Hilts: Right. Oh, uh, you’ll still be here when I get out?
Von Luger: Cooler!
Again the actual escape sequence is brilliantly shot, you feel the tension, you feel the suspense, and you keep asking yourself “Will they or wont they?” , And thats where The Great Escape scores overwhelmingly, it catches you by your lapels and pulls you along, making the viewer a part of the story, which is what i mention is essential for any entertainer.
But one of the best things i loved about the movie is he nicknames given to the characters, long after the movie is over, you dont remember the characters real names, you remember only the nicknames.
Steve Mc Queen is the “Cooler King”, because of his penchant to get into fights, with the German guards and often ending up in the cooler. Brash, cocky and smart alec, he often manages to get onto his captor’s nerves with his behaviour.
James Garner is the “Scrounger”, so called as he has this ability to procure anything right from fake documents to ID cards to cameras. His partner and best friend played by Donald Pleasance is “The Forger” for his ability to forge any kind of document. Both of them plan to escape in a plane, but it ends up in tragedy.
Sir Richard Attenborough is “Big X”, due to his reputation as an escape artist, and a man on the Gestapo’s hit list. He proves to be the mastermind behind the entire plan, right from planning to the execution.
James Coburn is “The Manufacturer” who is an expert at manufacturing the tools needed to dig through like picks and shovels. He also makes those air blowers needed to keep the oxygen level in tunnels. Charles Bronson is “The Tunnel King” so called due to his ability to dig the tunnels.
For a popcorn action entertainer like this, you have some excellent action sequences but most notable being the climactic chase between the German Army and Steve Mc Queen on a motorbike at the Swiss border. Rivetting and absolutely brilliant, and it also helped that Mc Queen himself was an avid biker in real life.
Another one is the way James Coburn outwits the Nazis and manages to flee from them on his bicycle. There are some touching sequences too, when the prisoners are re captured and executed.
Among the actors, Steve Mc Queen steals the show with his brash and cocky act, whether he is entering into exchanges with his German captors or playing baseball by himself in the cooler or his egoistic behaviour, he is just brilliant. Sir Richard Attenbourough is first rate as the mastermind behind the plan, while James Coburn impresess with his cool and laid back behaviour.
Charles Bronson as the Tunnel King is great in a role in his early days, while James Garner often seen in romantic dramas, does a good job as the Scrounger.
With nerve wracking tension, excellent pacing, superb performances and some great action sequences, this is a movie that is not to be missed at any costs. And my recommendation, get the popcorn, get the soda, lie back and enjoy this 2.5 hours roller coaster ride of a movie.