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. While it is not totally accurate (no POWs were from the United States … despite Steve McQueen headlining the film), “The Great Escape” is an impressive work for both drama and action. “The Great Escape” is in the pantheon of classic war movies and, if you haven’t seen it in a while, check it out as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed! Oh, and click here to read about the passing in 2019 of the final member of the group of Brits who did “The Great Escape …”
‘The Great Escape’
(1963; 172 minutes; rated UR – which is ‘unrated;’ directed by John Sturges and starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough)
IT’S A ‘GREAT ESCAPE’ AND A GREAT MOVIE
(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. I expanded the review again on Jan. 15, 2020.)
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 screenplay. 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” (click here for my review), “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” (click here for my review). McQueen should be first remembered for the classic sci-fi thriller “The Blob” in 1958. He was nominated for the excellent flick “The Sand Pebbles” but also turned out stinkers such as “The Hunter” (click here for my review). McQueen died at the young(ish) 50 in 1980 in Mexico, following surgery after he was diagnosed with cancer.
- An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Garner, who plays “Robert 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). He was nominated for 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance” with Sally Field and he died at 86 in 2014 of a heart attack.
- A two-time Oscar winner (not for this one), Attenborough plays “Roger Bartlett,” who is “Big X” and in command of the escape attempt. He dispatches this role with verve and energy. “Big X” is a target for the Gestapo and nevertheless manages to mastermind the whole thing. Of course, Attenborough would become a much more famous director than actor (although he did notch 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). He won both of his statues for “Gandhi” (best director and best picture). He also directed “A Chorus Line” – and that was one of his two Golden Globe nominations (along with three wins). Attenborough died at 90 in 2014.
Bronson and Coburn respectively play “Danny Velinski” the “Tunnel King” and “Louis Sedgwick” the “Manufacturer” respectively. Although of different personalities, both give a charged performance …
- A Primetime Emmy nominee, Bronson, best known for his action films and especially the “Death Wish” franchise (click here for my review of the outstanding original), as the somewhat loner who digs tunnels and ultimately cracks because of the confines of the tunnel. Bronson was also in another spectacle war film two years later – “Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review) and was also quietly spectacular in the original version of “The Mechanic” (click here for my review). He earned his nomination for a 1953 episode of “General Electric Theater.” Bronson died at 81 in 2003 from a variety of physical challenges.
- An Oscar winner (not for this one), Coburn, who was in Sam Peckinpah’s only WWII flick (“Cross of Iron” – click here for my review), did an OK turn in “Looker” (click here for my review), and hits on all cylinders with his outgoing, leave-it-to-me attitude. He would cruise from the POW camp on a bicycle, switch to a train, wind up in Paris to see a partisan hit on Nazi officers and then trek into freedom into Spain. Wow! What a story. Coburn won his statue for “Affliction” and was in the original “The Magnificent Seven” as well as another big-cast WWII flick: “Midway” (click here for my review). Coburn, who trained under legendary martial artist-actor Bruce Lee, died at 74 in 2002 of a heart attack.
Also solid at the top of other good actors are Angus Lennie and James Donald.
- Lennie plays “Flying Officer Archibald ‘Archie’ Ives,” who hooks up with McQueen in one escape attempt before throwing himself into the tunnel project, has just the right amount of sarcasm and makes the most of his short time on screen (no pun intended, but you’ll have to watch the move to understand). He was on a few episodes of the distinctive British TV series “ Who” and he died at 84 in 2014.
- A Primetime Emmy nominee, Donald plays “Group Capt. Ramsey,” the senior British officer (SBO), and has the perfect blend of upper-class air and insouciance while still being commanding. He was nominated for 1963’s “Victoria Regina” Donald was in another WWII classic “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and he died at 76 in 1993 of stomach cancer.
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, and who was chasing “Michael Myers” in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” with Jamie Lee Curtis (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” with Humphrey Bogart (click here for my review) or “Stalag 17” with William Holden, who won an Oscar for his work in it, 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 classics they became almost instantaneously.
“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. The only other film from 1963 that I’ve reviewed for my blog is “Beach Party” – the iconic Frankie and Annette beach flick (click here for my review).
Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- 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 to listen to Pleasence’s “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 IMDb.com: “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 IMDb.com: “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.”
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