Reviewed by: Brett Willis
|Featuring:||Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough,Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Donald|
Treated lukewarmly by critics when first released, “The Great Escape” later came to be regarded as one of the greatest WWII films ever. It’s also an enjoyable glimpse into the early careers of several major stars. Unlike the eyewitness book by former POW Paul Brickhill on which it is based, the film compresses some events and uses fictitious composite characters; but the great tunnel escape is shown pretty much as it actually happened.
A large number of escape-prone Allied Air Force officers are transferred to a new German maximum-security prison camp at Sagan—“all the rotten eggs in one basket.” The Camp Kommandant, Von Lugar (Hannes Messemer), tells senior Allied officer Ramsey (James Donald, “Bridge on the River Kwai”) that the prisoners should quit trying to escape, sit out the war and enjoy the relatively comfortable camp facilities. Ramsey reminds him that it’s an officer’s sworn duty to try to escape. “Big X” Bartlett (Sir Richard Attenborough, “Jurassic Park”), the officer in charge of coordinating escapes, has just endured three months of Gestapo/SS torture; he plans to strike back with a mass escape of 250 men.
Most of the prisoners are British (including Canadians and Australians); there are a few Americans, including Hendley (James Garner) and the authority-snubbing Hilts (Steve McQueen). A young and muscular Charles Bronson plays a Polish prisoner, Danny Velinski. The cast also includes Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and David McCallum.
The men proceed with escape plans, knowing that if they’re caught making any more escapes it could cost them their lives and it might cause command of the camp to be transferred from the regular German Air Force to the SS. We see examples of sacrifice: the fiercely independent Hilts agreeing to do a one-man escape and then let himself be recaptured so he can give recon information to the planners of the mass escape; Velinski digging seventeen escape tunnels (including three massive ones in this new camp) even though he’s claustrophobic.
The ingenious methods of hiding the tunnel dirt, creating civilian clothes and forged papers, and bribing/blackmailing German guards for needed supplies (explained in the book in greater detail) are also interesting. Profanity is limited to a few occurrences of d* and h*. There are some on-screen deaths, but the scene of a mass machine-gunning of prisoners is discreetly handled off-camera. There’s some hand-to-hand fighting, not very realistic-looking by today’s standards.
Why were a certain number of recaptured prisoners killed, while others were returned to the camp? The book explains that Hitler, angered by the mass escape, originally ordered that ALL the escapees were to be shot (in violation of the Geneva Convention). When reminded by Göring of the possible fallout, he settled for “more than half of them,” and eventually a nice round number was chosen so that everyone would know it was murder, but no one could prove it (deterrence without guilt).
The first half of the film has a lot of humor, but the story as a whole is tragic. It reminds us again what kinds of sacrifices are involved in war. Both the book and the film are worth your time.
[Postscript: I’m told that there was a negative side-effect from this film, even though it’s not the film’s fault. Apparently someone decided that it would be great to start with the basic setting of the film and then exaggerate everything—make the Allied prisoners more arrogant and the German guards denser, give the camp a country-club atmosphere and make security nonexistent. Thus was created the TV comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes,” which offended a lot of people, but managed to run for 7 seasons.]