Movie review: ‘The Great Escape’

I really enjoy the big-cast, spectacle war films. From the great and good (“The Longest Day,” “A Bridge Too Far” – click here for my review) to the disappointing (“The Big Red One” – click here for my review), there’s just something about the genre that’s special. Today I’ll look at “The Great Escape,” based on the historical account by Paul Brickhill. It is in the pantheon of classic war movies, so, if you haven’t seen it in a while, check it out as soon as you can.

‘The Great Escape’
(1963; 172 minutes; rated UR – which is ‘unrated;’ directed by John Sturges and starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough)


(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, more trivia and a bit of reorganization in the presentation of the review on March 17, 2017.)

The big-cast war film is even better when the director takes enough time to properly tell the story. With “The Great Escape,” director John Sturges works with a canvas of nearly three hours and uses each minute wisely. The audience then gets enough time from headliner Steve McQueen and co-stars James Garner and Richard Attenborough as well as the splendid supporting cast headlined by Charles Bronson and James Coburn.


The plot of the film is straightforward: World War II prisoners of war (mostly British but with a couple of Americans – they were tossed into the movie for the American movie-going audience, not from historical fact) plan, plot and execute an escape via a tunnel from a German camp. Of course “execute” would become an operable term for many of the escapees. Click here for Wiki explanation of the real “Great Escape” during WW II (plus a list of the actual officers killed by the Nazis).

The plot allows the large cast to bring layers to the film and a dimension not usually found in a war movie. You get to know the characters because of the actors and not just because of the script. Further, Sturges took time building to the escape, the escape and ensuing chase of the principal characters.

Here’s a look at just a very few of this impressively large cast:

  • Center stage here is Oscar nominee (not for this one) McQueen, who was becoming the hot property in U.S. and world cinema at the time. He plays “Capt. Virgil Hilts,” an American flier shot down and captured. McQueen, with his many accomplished film roles including “Bullitt,” “Papillon,” “The Getaway” (click here for my review) and the original “Thomas Crown Affair” (click here for my review of the remake) is at his energetic and affable best in this one and does a solid, excellent turn as the officer who knows he’ll overcome any opposition. Although he’s got his A-game going here, I liked him best in “The Cincinnati Kid.” He was nominated for the excellent flick “The Sand Pebbles.”
  • Garner, who plays “Hendley,” is an American who was serving as a Canadian when he was shot down. He is the camp scrounger and blackmailer of guards. Garner, like McQueen, glides with affable and apparent ease through this one, but it is his talent making the difference. Just as Brad Pitt is watchable on screen today, so was Garner in 1963. He also starred in films such as “Move Over, Darling” with Doris Day and “Marlowe” as well as his best-known roles in TV’s “The Rockford Files.” I really enjoyed his work in the HBO film “Barbarians at the Gate” (click here for my review).
  • Oscar winner (not for this one) Attenborough plays “Roger Bartlett,” who is “Big X” and in command of the escape attempt, with verve and energy. He is a target for the Gestapo and masterminds the whole thing. Of course Attenborough would become a much more famous director than actor (although he does have 78 acting credits including as “John Hammond” in “Jurassic Park”), as he was at the helm of “A Bridge Too Far” (click here for my review), “Gandhi” (for which he won two Oscars) and “A Chorus Line.”
  • Bronson and Coburn play “Danny” the “Tunnel King” and “Sedgwick” the “manufacturer” respectively. Although of different personalities, both give a charged performance: Bronson, best known for his action films and especially the “Death Wish” franchise (click here for my review of the original), as the somewhat loner who digs tunnels and ultimately cracks because of the confines of the tunnel. Coburn, who did an OK turn in “Looker” (click here for my review), hits on all cylinders with his outgoing, leave-it-to-me attitude. Both characters would escape and survive the ending. Bronson was also in another spectacle war film two years later – “Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review).

Also solid at the top of other good actors are Angus Lennie, who today at 84 is a decade past his last role, and James Donald. Lennie plays “Ives,” who hooks up with McQueen in one escape attempt before throwing himself into the tunnel project, has just the right amount of sarcasm. Donald plays “Ramsey,” the senior British officer (SBO), and has the perfect blend of upper-class air and insouciance while still being commanding. Other actors doing solid work here include David (TV’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) McCallum and Donald Pleasence, who was in “Escape from New York” – click here for my review.

In the end, “The Great Escape” isn’t the equal in drama and acting of Oscar-winning war films such as “The Caine Mutiny” (click here for my review) or “Stalag 17,” but neither of those films has a huge cast and both have a focus on one or two actors, who made each of those respective films.

The Great Escape” made $11.7 million at the box office on a budget of $3.8 million. It was ranked 17th at the box office for 1963, according to Wiki. “Cleopatra” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was first with $57.7 million.

Other cast and film notes (via

  • Pleasence, who was after Michael Myers in the original “Halloween” film by John Carpenter and two of its sequels (click here for my review of the original), tried to give advice to Sturges, who turned it down and didn’t want his “opinions.” Sturges changed his mind when told that Pleasence had been an officer during the war, shot down, imprisoned and tortured by the Germans. Ouch, Mr. Sturges, that’s a burn!
  • The other cast members to have been a POW during WWII was Hannes Messemer, who plays camp commandant “Von Luger;” Til Kiwe, who plays “Frick;” and Hans Reiser, who plays Gestapo meanie “Herr Kuhn.” Messemer was a German prisoner of the Russians (very few returned from the snows of Siberia in their internment), while Kiwe and Reiser were Germans captured by the Americans. Novelist James Clavell, who co-wrote the script, was a British soldier captured by the Japanese and was in the brutal (90-percent death rate) Changi camp.
  • McQueen did several motorcycle stunts himself, but not the signature jump over barbed wire.
  • Clavell wrote hugely popular novels (from “King Rat” to “Shogun” to “Noble House”), but also has a place in cinema having directed “To Sir With Love” and other screenwriting credits. “Shogun” was a hyper-popular TV mini-series and “Noble House,” too was made into a mini-series, but wasn’t as popular (click here for my review).
  • Directly from “One day, the police in the German town where the film was shot set up a speed trap near the set. Several members of the cast and crew were caught, including Steve McQueen. The Chief of Police told McQueen ‘Herr McQueen, we have caught several of your comrades today, but you have won the prize [for the highest speeding].’ McQueen was arrested and briefly jailed.”
  • Finally and directly from “Charles Bronson, who portrays the chief tunneler, brought his own expertise and experiences to the set: he had been a coal miner before turning to acting and gave director John Sturges advice on how to move the earth. As a result of his work in the coal mines, Bronson suffered from claustrophobia just as his character had.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples
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