The Great Escape Movie Review
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!