Based on actual events that took place during the largest Allied escape from a German POW camp during WWII, John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963) is a high stakes, tension laden – occasionally humorous - game of cat and mouse. With exception made to the final twenty minutes of the film, the bulk of the story takes place in one bunk house inside a POW camp or inside the confined dirt tunnel being dug beneath it.
Top billed is Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts, a roguishly defiant American POW who distracts the Nazis from his compatriots tunneling efforts by doing everything he can to get himself thrown into solitary confinement. The planned escape is actually a diversionary tactic to preoccupy the Nazis while the real Allied assault takes place. It is orchestrated by Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), and backed by Flight Lt. Hendley (James Gardner). Unfortunately, on the night of escape, the plan is exposed and only a handful of the POW’s make it out of the camp. Even fewer will return to it alive.
Based on Paul Brickhill's novel, The Great Escape is exhilarating entertainment. James Clavell and W.R. Burnett's screenplay does a masterful job of condensing the novel's sprawling action, giving each character his due with memorable scenes that endure in our memory. Who can forget Danny (Charles Bronson) - the 'tunnel king' who suffers from a moment of nervous claustrophobia while digging through the earth on the eve of the escape. Or Donald Pleasance sympathetic demise as Blythe, the forger, who suffers blindness after the biplane he and Hiltz are flying is forced to make an emergency landing.
What is most intriguing about the film is Sturges’ depiction of the Nazis; a restrained portrait of military men just doing their job and following orders, instead of the usual cardboard cutouts that the movies generally present with relished aplomb. The second half of Sturge’s masterpiece is a thrilling race against time, as the Gestapo apprehends most of the seventy escapees – assassinating some – and returning the rest to prison.
Today, the film is justly celebrated for Hilts’ daring motorcycle ride across the Austrian countryside that ends in a bloody mangled mess when he is unable to clear a barbed wire fence. McQueen, who rode a motorcycle in real life and desperately wanted to do his own riding during this sequence, practiced with a stunt coordinator, but ultimately relinquished the more harrowing jumps to a double - virtually indistinguishable in long shot.
Despite being depicted as a daring deed performed by Americans, in reality the real escape had a very large Canadian contingent that is all but ignored in the film. Most of the characters as represented are simplified, distilled and largely fictionalized amalgams of multiple real life heroes, with McQueen's Hiltz the biggest fictionalization of them all. That said, McQueen is undeniably the star of this show; his own defiant and devilish personality really lending an air of credence to the story.
Historians and purists often poo-poo such changes as a bastardization of the historical record. But such alterations should not be considered as shortcomings. In cinematic terms, what Burnett and Clavell have achieved is a verisimilitude that stands in for the truth. Their revisions - or, improving upon reality - making the history live for us in movie terms and that's really all that matters - or should matter - to movie goers. Bottom line: The Great Escape delivers.
One wishes that MGM Home Entertainment’s DVD did as much. The anamorphically enhanced film elements are riddled with age related artifacts throughout. Certain sequences greatly suffer from color fading. Flesh tones are very orange rather than natural. Greens in foliage fluctuate from yellowy green to a muddy hazy brown. Digitized grain is prevalent for an image that is rarely smooth. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and fairly aggressive, particularly during the climactic chase sequence. Extras include a litany of brief featurettes that cumulatively deliver a very thorough account of the film’s making and real life historical events. Recommended for content/not the transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)