At this point in time, I can honestly say that most people have heard of or can identify The Great Escape in some way. This 1963 World War II epic adventure film wasn’t received by critics well at all. They all said that the film lacked any kinds of artistic credit or skill, but what they failed to realize is that The Great Escape is just pure entertainment. In the 52 years since its release, the film has garnered classic status, and rightfully so. This film is an American achievement of pure fun and entertainment, while also offering plenty of suspense, character, and story telling.
In 1943, after repeated escape attempts from British and American POWs, Nazi Germany decides to build a new camp, Stalag Luft III, which is designed to keep the most disruptive and tricky prisoners in one spot. This might’ve seemed like a good idea on paper, but it also brings all of the brilliant minds together. Some of these minds include Americans Robert Hendley (James Garner) and Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen). When British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) is admitted into the camp, a brilliant and complicated plan to escape involving multiple systems of tunnels is devised. It’s all a difficult procedure, especially keeping it hidden from the guards, but the plan soon becomes deadly when the escapees have to travel through Germany and Paris to get home.
The first time I saw this movie I was probably 11 or 12, so the grandiosity of the whole production wasn’t fully appreciated. I enjoyed the movie, but now I can truly understand it as something special. What happens when a real life story as incredible as this is turned into a movie with one of the greatest casts ever assembled to act in a story that is impeccably written? Well, you get a movie that has earned its firm and well respected spot in film history. There’s a lot of movies that kind of baffle me why they are loved so much by so many, but The Great Escape is not one of those movies. Throughout the entirety of its nearly 3 hour run time, I was completely involved and entertained.
As I said earlier, the cast of The Great Escape is one of the best casts you or me or anyone is ever going to see. Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough are always the first mentioned, but the list doesn’t stop there. There’s also James Coburn, James Donald, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and Charles Bronson in one of his more under appreciated roles. My personal favorite performances are McQueen’s (because of his boyish excitement towards everything happening), Donald Pleasence’s quiet and ultimately tragic role, and Charles Bronson for showing some weakness even though he’s best known for playing tough guys. While the cast is fantastic, none of this would matter if it didn’t have a screenplay to back it up.
James Clavell and W.R. Burnett took Paul Brickhill’s book of the same name and did something truly remarkable with it. This is a story of American and British POWs breaking out of a Nazi prison camp where the outcome is grim for a lot of them. Even with this heavy subject matter, this is a very light hearted adventure. There’s plenty of moments of humor and a lot of the banter between characters is very funny. Even Elmer Bernstein’s main theme for the film isn’t all that intense. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any scenes that really hits where it hurts. In fact, much of the second half of the movie loses the sense of humor for a more suspenseful and intense tone. This might have made the movie feel uneven in any other circumstances, but it works just fine here.
Simply put, The Great Escape is an achievement of American film making, and proof that an epic war film can still be a lot of fun. Even though the film boasts a three hour run time, I dare anyone to get bored watching this movie. There’s a lot of action, adventure, suspense, and humor mixed in a screenplay filled with memorable scenes played by great actors. I don’t have much more to say about this movie other than this is one of the most fun and well constructed movie you may ever see, and it would be a crime to miss out.