Coming on the heels of John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven three years earlier, 1963's The Great Escape shows how quickly the ambitious epic can turn into a rote, readymade piece of filmmaking - a Hollywood masterpiece by design. There's a formal, somewhat stilted feel to its three-hour story about a group of imprisoned World War II officers and their struggle to break out of a Nazi P.O.W. camp, and anybody who thinks that Michael Bay is a bullying thug of a filmmaker who likes pushing people's emotions around can come here to see where he got it from. But for all its flaws, Escape has some of the most memorable moments in any war film, and some excellent performances from its ensemble cast.
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.
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