Based on a true story, The Great Escape is set during the tail end of World War II, when a variety of officers from different countries were sent to Stalag Luft III, a prison camp designed to handle the most diligent escape attempts. Both fearless and duty-bound, the men spend no time with long prologues or chit-chat about what to do; they, along with the movie, immediately set to work, using the skills they know best. There's Anthony Hendley, the "scrounger" skilled at digging up needed provisions; James Garner, at his best when he's being charmingly unctuous to his Nazi captors; Charles Bronson, as the "tunnel king" Danny Velinski, offering a nice combination of two-fisted bravado and sensitive-guy neurosis; and Donald Pleasance, the British document forger, who brings a steely, proud stoicism to his role that sets the movie's emotional feel. His is the most convincing performance, which makes sense given that really did time in a German P.O.W. camp.
But this is Steve McQueen's movie. From the quiet bravado he shows when he helps his fellow inmates escape, to the smirking I'll-be-back way he tosses a baseball in his jail cell, to the simply kick-ass way he roars across the German countryside on a motorcycle, this is the moment where McQueen defined himself not just as a great American actor, but as a living representative of what America's all about. The movie's official tragedy is that 50 of the men who escaped were caught and killed by Nazis. But the real one is the moment when McQueen himself is finally caught on the lush German countryside. Bleeding and swaddled in barbed wire, he looks sadly emasculated.
There are other parts of Escape worth cheering - James Coburn's humor, Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score - but John Sturges isn't a very clever director, and his approach to the war story itself often feels pat and insubstantial. The script suffers from its share of improbabilities and clichés - none worse than the way Bronson gets a sudden case of claustrophobia at just the wrong time after spending his life making tunnels. So Escape sits somewhere between Stalag 17 and the average episode of Hogan's Heroes - a professionally made World War II tale, but not an emotionally resonant on.
On the new DVD, director Sturges (with various others) offers a commentary track, plus a nifty pop-up trivia track. A second disc offers numerous featurettes and archival documentaries. Highly recommended disc set.
He's going back! He's going back!
Run time: 172 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 4th July 1963
Box Office Worldwide: $5M
Distributed by: VCI
Production compaines: The Mirisch Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
IMDB: 8.3 / 10
Director: John Sturges
Producer: John Sturges
Screenwriter: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett
Starring: Steve McQueen as Captain Hilts, James Garner as Flight Lt. Hendley, Richard Attenborough as Roger Bartlett, James Donald as Group Capt. Ramsey "The SBO", Charles Bronson as Flight Lt. Danny Velinski, Donald Pleasence as Flight Lt. Colin Blythe "The Forger", James Coburn as Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick "The Manufacturer", Hannes Messemer as Kommandant von Luger, David McCallum as Lt. Cmdr. Eric Ashley-Pitt "Dispersal", Gordon Jackson as Flight Lt. Sandy MacDonald "Intelligence", John Leyton as Flight Lt. William Dickes "The Tunneler", Angus Lennie as Flying Officer Archibald Ives "The Mole", Nigel Stock as Flight Lt. Denys Cavendish "The Surveyor", Robert Graf as Werner 'The Ferret', Jud Taylor as Goff, Hans Reiser as Herr Kuhn, Harry Riebauer as Stratwitch, William Russell as Sorren, Robert Freitag as Capt. Posen, Ulrich Beiger as Preissen, George Mikell as Lt. Dietrich, Robert Desmond as Griffith 'Tailor', Til Kiwe as Frick, Heinz Weiss as Kramer, Tom Adams as Dai Nimmo ('Diversions'), Karl-Otto Alberty as S.S. Officer Steinach, Lawrence Montaigne as Haynes ('Diversions')