There are some films you’ve seen so many times you can’t possibly review them objectively. John Sturges’ World War II epic The Great Escape (1963) is one of those films for me, and yes, it is unassailably awesome. (See?)
Based loosely on actual events, the film is set in a prisoner of war camp in Germany – but this isn’t just any camp. As the Kommandant (Hannes Messemer) explains to SBO Ramsey (James Donald), the Germans are putting “all their rotten eggs in one basket.” The Allies’ most rebellious, daring troublemakers – all with multiple escape attempts on their records – have been collected in one place for special scrutiny. “Very wise,” Ramsey comments with undisguised irony. The Kommandant wants the prisoners to sit out the war obediently, but once mastermind Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) shows up, it’s only a matter of time before the opposite happens: a spectacular mass breakout. Under the noses of the Germans, with meticulous planning, ingenius deception, and relentless determination, the “X” organization leverages every resource at its disposal to pull off an outrageous, risky, and heroic escape.
Featuring a stirring score by Elmer Bernstein, gorgeous European location work, and a massive, likeable rogue’s gallery of characters, The Great Escape is an inspiring entertainment. Its early stretches set the stage: on day one, the prisoners start probing the camp’s security, looking for weaknesses. Escape appears to be impossible, until Bartlett arrives to coordinate a precise effort of teamwork. The first half of the film details the almost absurd lengths to which the group goes to engineer a way out, building eventually to the tense and exciting escape itself – which simultaneously goes very well (thanks to clockwork planning) and disastrously wrong (thanks to random chance). Once the troops are scattered all over Germany, they use every last ounce of guile, wit, and guts to try to elude capture and make it to the border and freedom.
I love this movie beyond all reason, and I’m not sure which aspect of it connects with me most. It may be the film’s clockwork, Mission: Impossible-like build-up as they prepare the escape, with sharp visual story-telling driving the plan’s momentum. It could be the plucky humor, the inspiring bravery, the sense of an unlikely, international created family coming together under trying circumstances. Or perhaps it’s the characters – from the ruthless Bartlett, to claustrophobic tunneler Danny (Charles Bronson), to fast-talking scrounger Henley (James Garner), to his subdued British bunkmate Blythe (Donald Pleasance), there are plenty of likeable folks to rally around. And, of course, there’s perhaps the coolest film character of all time, Hilts (Steve McQueen). Reckless, sarcastic, maybe even a little dense, Hilts is an inspiring nut job, his main role in the proceedings to make repeated escape attempts so that the Germans won’t think the prisoners have stopped trying to get out. The image of Hilts, bouncing his baseball in the solitary confinement cell, has become something of a mind’s eye rallying cry for me – an iconic image of never giving up, no matter the odds.
And that may be, to me, the thematic core of this film, and why it stays with me – and why, when I popped in my new Blu-ray copy recently for the first viewing in a while, the very notes of the opening music choked me up a little. The Great Escape, while it takes some liberties with fact and in some ways is surely a sanitized version of the war, symbolizes for me the resilience of human experience – to respond to failure with more effort, to face defeat with dignity, and to keep trying no matter what. Now that I’ve got that message lodged in my heart, it won’t go away; I walk away from every rewatch feeling positively lifted. Love this movie.