The Great Escape is aptly named. Released in 1963, when the 2nd World War was still in living memory for many, the film accomplished one of the most difficult tricks a Hollywood picture can perform: it entertains thoroughly without losing sight of the somber realities underlying the exciting story. As a period piece, unlike many films of the ’60s, it feels utterly timeless. If you’ve seen it before, watching it again is like opening a door on a room where the same music that was playing the last time you were there is still playing and still familiar. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
The success of the movie may lie in its bang-up cast, all of them fantastic, including James Garner as the wry, understated “scrounger”, Hendley; Richard Attenborough as the driven leader, Big X; Donald Pleasance as the sweet, gentle forger, Blythe; Charles Bronson as the claustrophobic Tunnel King; and of course, Steve McQueen as Hilts, the hot-shot American pilot, a star-making performance. No small credit should go to Elmer Bernstein, either, for his jaunty, iconic theme, or to John Sturges, whose direction is clean and strong, but often playful; much of the film mines comedy from off-screen space (think of Hendley pulling an endless supply of edible contraband out of his cabinet) or the coordinated choreography of multiple actors at once, as when the men take seconds to turn a digging operation into a fully functioning shower (“I’m watching him, I’m a lifeguard”). Sturges is unafraid to let his scenes play in lengthy shots, knowing his actors can carry the material a long way without needing a break or a flashy close-up, and in the back half of the film, he builds powerful suspense sequences out of little more than glances.
But the true genius of the movie is its structure. The script is witty, clever, and full of specific details, especially surrounding the various diversions and cover-ups used to hide the escape preparations (Blythe putting his bird knowledge to use teaching a fake class while the Germans watch before switching over to forgery lessons, for instance). But it’s also patient. The Great Escape is a long movie, with a full third act (unlike most films, where both climax and falling action are often truncated in comparison to the set-up and development portions of the story), and it uses that time to give complete story arcs to more than half a dozen characters as they prepare and then execute a marvelous escape.
The first half of the film is essentially an enormously entertaining caper movie, starting with the ingenious (and true to life) premise that the Nazis have gathered all the top escape artists from every other POW camp and placed them here, together, under the close eye of Kommandant von Luger, who memorably describes the strategy as putting “all our rotten eggs in one basket.” (I couldn’t resist quoting Tarantino’s witty rejoinder to the metaphor from Inglorious Basterds: “Then we blow up the basket.”) It’s better than the traditional heist movie “getting the gang together” sequence, because all of them are not only practiced experts but also frustrated failures trying for one last job. The prospect of finally getting out of Germany after multiple years as prisoners of war (and hopefully confounding and burdening the Nazi army along the way) aligns all of their interests and provides common, overriding stakes for the effort. During these sequences, we get everything from crackling comedy to tension and suspense as the guards seek to contain their efforts and the prisoners seek to game the system in any way they can, from singing and gardening to bribery and blackmail. Every scene pulls double or triple duty, carefully establishing set-ups, providing interesting procedural details about the escape, and developing distinct characters all at the same time. Before we know it, we’re enormously involved in the story, and that’s when it whacks us right between the eyes.
At the midpoint of the movie, The Great Escape suddenly shifts genres on us, reminding us that it’s also a war movie. Although the escape attempt is still carried out, it’s no longer a caper, it’s deadly serious. What was a lark has deepened in significance for both us and the characters, who contemplate both the potential return to their families and the possibility of dying in the attempt. The climax of the film draws an agony of suspense from an endless repeated sequence of men traveling through the tunnel and out and across as the guards pace and sirens blare. The later sequences are brutal, not in terms of what they show, but because the film patiently and at length holds out the possibility of hope for those men who made it out–and then dashes that hope for many of them.
War is a nasty business, one which these men through their little game endeavored to forget, a way of taking back some measure of control and dignity in their lives. But in the end, control, dignity, and life itself is taken from them. Even von Luger seems ashamed of what has happened. At the beginning of the film, while attempting to impress upon the POWs how much he wishes they will not escape, the Kommandant reluctantly admits that, no matter what side you’re on, it is every officer’s duty to make life as difficult for the enemy as possible. It’s that sense of duty that drives these men, in humor and bitter resolve, to try and beat the game. That they lose, there is no doubt; but perhaps there is value simply in continuing to play, in not giving up, in bouncing the ball off the cooler wall, because what else are you going to do, nothing? One of the finest of all movies, The Great Escape is the complete package–a prison movie where all the prisoners are virtuous, a war movie without the distraction of combat, a caper film with a light touch and heavy stakes, a movie which entertains and moves us in equal measure. Above all, it gives us people we won’t forget and a place which, for all that they want to leave it, we will always enjoy revisiting.