Tuesday, June 30, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "THE GREAT ESCAPE"

THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

Director: John Sturges
Screenplay: James Clavell and W.R. Burnett based on the book by Paul Brickhill



What is it about John Sturges's "The Great Escape" that makes it so inherently watchable? It's a bit of an anomaly when you really look at it. It was made right in that last era of the classic Hollywood film yet feels like a movie made out of time. Some say it solidified Steve McQueen as the epitome of cool, his rebellious Hilts, a renegade loner rebel, forever in the cooler playing catch with the wall thinking up his latest escape attempt. I don't know though, I never fully understood that appeal to McQueen and the movie doesn't really revolve around him. Actually, the film probably has more in common with something like "Seven Samurai" or one of those movies that has a group of people brought together to achieve a goal. (Which makes sense, Sturges's other most well-known film was "The Magnificent Seven" the western remake of "Seven Samurai") Yet it's also a war movie, a POW WWII movie, putting it in the same league as Billy Wilder's masterpiece "Stalag 17" and it's got some of the same comedic slice-of-life aspects as that film, but it also boasts it's accuracy, mentioning in the beginning how the details of the actual escape are completely accurate despite the composite characters.

Actually, the film is more accurate than it lead on, and that's the other thing, most of the escapees, end up getting killed, either trying to escape or after they get caught. Sorry if that's a spoiler there for you, but the movie isn't about the result, it's mostly just in awe at the accomplishment and the details therein. It starts with how truly difficult it is to escape and how even after an escape, it's almost impossible not to get caught and immediately brought back as POW camps were too far from the front and it's very easy to slip up on any fake persona they can come up with. But, officers and required to try to escape, so with that, we see the multiple ways they tried to escape, the escapes that were themselves distractions to the 3-tunnel approach, even the Nazis themselves in charge of the camp have a begrudging respect for the officers and their attempts however faulty or flawed.

Perhaps the real genius of the film is that it promises a great escape and it is. It's an elaborate, meticulously shot and detailed and deserves to be the three hour tragic, heroic epic, disguised as the prototypical man's man movie. For an epic, there isn't much more than that, and yet, you get so inherently engrossed in the struggle nonetheless, whether the amazing rebuilding of the escape tunnels, the tracking shots in those tunnels, or just those moments in between strategizing and preparing to escape to just see Steve McQueen being all Steve McQueen. "The Great Escape" is big, bold, action-filled, and yet, it carefully reconstructs, pretty factually, a real amazing escape from a German POW camp that cost nearly everybody involved their lives. It's a hard film to describe it's greatness, and yet, when watching it, there's no question of it, this was the kind of story that cinema was made for.
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