Wednesday, January 12, 2011

#23 The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape (1963)

"A long set-up, but a good climax."

Out of this little list of mine, there are several films of which I have been around for a very long time. Films such as Gone with the Wind; Bridge over the River Kwai; Meet Me in St. Louis; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and this one I will be talking about today, The Great Escape, which have been very popular among certain members of my family, and have been watched on numerous occasions by them, and yet I have never before seen. When I was younger I was always too close-minded to appreciate the excellence of the film I saw before me. Sure I knew certain famous scenes – the classic duel from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Scarlett giving birth to her baby in Gone with the Wind (“I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ no babies!”), or Steve McQueen trying to jump his motorcycle over the fences and into Switzerland at the end of this movie, but I have never actually seen these movies all the way through before. I am certainly glad I have seen this movie now, however. A superb piece of filmmaking, which, though it starts slow, builds up tension and suspense all the way to the end as we watch the characters we have spent the last two and a half hours getting acquainted with try to make their daring escapes.

The movie opens to the iconic theme music from this movie; music that no doubt nearly everyone in this country has heard at least one point in their lives. We are then immediately introduced to the primary characters of the film, who take a stroll around the prison, probing the defenses for weaknesses. It is a very neat scene, the result of which is a number of which is a number of characters trying to make their first attempts at escape, and failing quite superbly. What I like about the attempts, though, is that the escapees show no shame or fear of being caught, they act as though it is a point of pride for them. Those being caught and subsequently sent to the cooler is a point of pride for them. This is explained slightly before the catching event when the commanding officer of the prisoners is sent to meet with the guard warden, in which he explains that “It is the sworn duty of every officer to try to escape”. The warden also explains what this camp is; that it is a camp in which the Luftwaffe have placed all the best allied escape artists are being placed in one singular camp, so as to make it easier for the Nazis to keep close tabs on them. The only flaw in this plan is that all the best escape artists are being placed together in one camp, and so they immediately plan an escape attempt of epic proportions: 3 tunnels, 250 escapees. The next hour and half or so of the movie, in which the conspirators collaborate, plan, and prepare their escape, is very fun to watch. A friend who was watching it with me said it felt like an episode of the 80s TV show Hogan’s Heroes, which was modeled on this movie. What it felt like more to me was those scenes in episodes of the cartoon “Rugrats” in which the main character Tommy would plan some elaborate scheme to save something or another and it would work out like clockwork. Anyway, the British prisoners, with the aid of a scrounging American, succeed well with their plan. Steve McQueen, however, who plays Captain Hilts doesn’t want to play their game. He tries to go it alone, making attempts on his own, or with the aid of the friend he makes in the camp, the Scotsman Archibald Ives, whom he meets in his first trip to the cooler. Though Hilts and Ives try time and again to escape, their attempts fail repeatedly, and they find themselves placed evermore in the cooler. It is only after Ives can’t take it anymore, and so commits suicide by running to the fence (getting shot by machine guns), does Hilts finally become a team player, sacrificing his on chance at freedom to give the British valuable intelligence.

Finally after some time the preparation is complete and the escape attempt is made. Naturally things don’t go quite as planned, but the attempt is carried on nevertheless. The last half hour or so details what happens to each of the major characters after they get out of the camp and try to make their way back home. This part of the movie is marked by a sharp shift in tone from, ironically enough, lighthearted and upbeat in the prison, to tense, exciting, and in several cases tragic outside of the prison. This climax is the whole point of the film. You the viewer are built up over the course of 2 and a half hours, getting to know, understand, and care about each of the characters, their motivations, their skill sets, and most importantly, what’s at risk, especially characters like Richard Attenborough who has made so many escape attempts, that he’s told at the beginning of the film that if he tries again and is caught he will be shot on sight. I thought this stark contrast between tone inside and outside the prison was well played, and made for an interesting dichotomy.

Personally, I felt that the directing and cinematography on the whole were rather average. I didn’t feel there was anything particularly spectacular about it, or rather no scene really jumped out at me. There were a couple neat effects scattered throughout the film, though. I particularly liked the scene involving Hilts’s second escape attempt. He tells the British conspirators exactly how he plans to tunnel out of prison, and then leaves. The British conspirators then talk about how original idea it is, and that they hope he succeeds. The very next scene shows a very blackened and dirty Hilts and Ires being escorted to the cooler. It was a very neat cut. Another thing I like is how the escape is presented. I like the cuts from the tense moment of several escapees being on a train with Gestapo checking everyone for their identification, to a serene escape made by rowboat by two other members, to Steve McQueen riding around on a motorcycle. It really plays with your emotions, and makes the tense moments even more exciting. John Sturges does a really good job playing the viewers’ emotions in these scenes. One thing I didn’t like about this film was the pacing. I thought it was rather uneven, especially in detailing various characters’ emotions. In this movie there are two characters that crack and with both of them it happens so abruptly that it doesn’t feel realistic at all. I felt if they could have shown the stress and wear getting to the characters, particularly the Polish digger Danny Velinski, who is a tunneler with claustrophobia, it would have been an even more spectacular movie. However, I do like the dialogue a lot in this movie, it’s very cleverly played. I also like the subtlety revolving around the scrounger Lt. Hendley. You are not quite told what exactly he is up to when he’s trying to get something, so you are as confused as the guards who he is deceiving. Lastly, I really like the relationships developed. I thought these; particularly those between Henley and Blythe, Dickes and Velinski were believable and touching. One thing I was afraid of, going into this film, was that with such a large amount of characters focused on in this film, and who we are supposed to care about in specific ways, the result was going to be a mess in which I didn’t care about any of the characters, but this simply did not happen. Director Sturges does a really good job of introducing the characters and making sure the viewer knows who each of them is, and why you should care about them, so that when the escape occurs you are actually rooting for each and every one of them.

I felt the acting on the whole was quite good. Naturally Steve McQueen (Hilts) and James Garner (Hendley the Scrounger) were very good. Attenborough was excellent I felt, but I particularly liked Charles Bronson, who was playing Velinski, the tunnel king. Even though I thought his cracking under pressure was too abrupt, and it could have been introduced better, after it is introduced, Bronson does a very good job making this character development very believable and watching him breakdown during the escape was simply agonizing (in a good way). My only complaint with the acting was that the Germans accents when some of the guard extras were speaking English were simply atrocious. If they were German extras then maybe it’s just me, but it really felt like something you’d see in Hogan’s heroes; I was half expecting one of them to yell “Jawohl Herr Kommandant!” Overall this made it harder for me to get into the film during the first 5 minutes or so, but it got better after that.

Overall, I thought this film was superb, and even though it runs in at nearly 3 hours, it was definitely a film worth my time. This film is on the list on the first because of the all-star cast, which included Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Charles Bronson, to name a few, and because of the last bit of the movie, which is a masterpiece of suspense and excitement. It definitely helps that the scene in which Steve McQueen tries to ride his motorcycle to Switzerland is one of the most famous scenes in film. Anyway, while I thought this film was on the whole good and certainly worthy of being on the list, it didn’t strike me quite like Seven Samurai, Psycho, or 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I will be reviewing next) did. Though I don’t really think it was meant to. On the whole it was a great film, and definitely worth a watch.

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