Film review: ‘The Great Escape’

“It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”

That quote sets the stage for one of the most iconic prison break films of all time. When someone mentions the genre, “prison break movies,” there are few, if any, that immediately come to mind faster than “The Great Escape” which will screen at the Sebastiani Theater on April 10. Even those who haven’t seen the film are more than likely to be aware of its existence, and its indelible mark on pop-culture. Prison break films have more or less been left behind by Hollywood in recent years, save of course for the occasional twist on the genre in something like “Toy Story 3,” so to visit a relic of the past like this in the midst of today’s current filmmaking landscape is a breath of fresh air.

Despite only being nominated for a single Academy Award for Best Film Editing in 1963, the film was a massive box-office hit for its time and made a bona-fide star out of Steve McQueen, who received top billing despite having roughly the same amount of screentime as at least a half a dozen other actors involved. McQueen famously took a great deal of creative control over his character’s direction, a move which generated a fair amount of tension on the set. Director John Sturges had to bend over backward to make his leading man happy, but it certainly wasn’t at the service of an actor with less than impeccable charisma. In addition to requesting that his character be granted a fair number of scenes of heroism, his primary stipulation in agreeing to do the film was that he be allowed to show off his motorcycle skills. Despite there being no motorbikes involved in the actual prisoner-of-war-camp escape this movie was based upon, McQueen speeding away from a platoon of Germans has become one of the most famous images from the film. The modern Blu-ray cover art exclusively features it.

McQueen’s character was not alone when it came to artistic liberty. A great deal of the based-on-a-true story is compromised in order to provide strong showcases for its cavalcade of actors, some of whom were already well-known, others who were just about to be. Many of these actors were war veterans themselves. McQueen had served in the Marines. Richard Attenborough as “Big X” and Donald Pleasence as “The Forger” had served in the Air Force. Charles Bronson as the “Tunnel King” had served in the Air Force and James Garner as the “Scrounger” had served in the Korean War. Many portrayed amalgams of a number of different people. All brought an authentic perspective to the film which served the production well. Many ex-POWs served as technical advisors on the film and asked the makers not to include certain specifics of past escape plans in order to not jeopardize future potential escapes. The filmmakers were happy to agree to these terms.

While in this day and age it’s easy to imagine far worse places to be held prisoner than the camp which is depicted here, that doesn’t stop the characters from immediately setting themselves to work on efforts to break out. From the moment the opening credits end and we see them step off their transport onto the grounds of the camp, they’re already coming up with ideas. And almost the entire three hour running time is devoted to demonstrating their fascinating efforts in doing so. Traditional action sequences are kept to a bare minimum as the film devotes itself exclusively to showing us the intelligence and determination of these men, as well as their bonding relationships along the way. You’d think such a move would make a film feel slow and dated, but I feel it is exactly what’s helped it continue to resonate through all of these years.

“The Great Escape” will screen at 7 p.m. on April 10 at the Sebastiani Theatre. Admission is $10 per person. For tickets, call 996-9756.

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