Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Great Escape

This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.

The Great Escape is a 1963 film about the spectacular escape by Allied prisoners of war from a German camp during WW II. We have part of the cast of The Magnificent Seven reunited : Steve McQueen, JamesCoburn, Charles Bronson. Add a younger, gorgeous James Garner (The Notebook) and David McCallum (Dr Donald « Duckie » Malklard in NCIS !!), others that I did not know, and you have a good recipe for a perfect film. And indeed, it is !
The story was adapted from Paul Brickhill's book TheGreat Escape. He had been a prisoner at Stalag Luft III during WW II.
Having wasted a lot of resources on recapturing Allied prisoners of war, the Germans move the most determined to a new, high-security camp.

Sedgwick: Danny, do you speak Russian?
Danny: A little, but only one sentence.
Sedgwick: Well, let me have it, mate.
Danny: Ya vas lyublyu.
Sedgwick: Ya ya vas...
Danny: Lyublyu.
Sedgwick: Lyubliu? Ya vas lyubliu. Ya vas lyublyu. What's it mean?
Danny: I love you.
Sedgwick: Love you. What bloody good is that?
Danny: I don't know, I wasn't going to use it myself.
Steve McQueen is always attached to this film but, even though he is indeed magnificent, it is the whole cast which creates the memorable characters. The tiny issue with The Great Escape's not really a Great Escape !! It basically ends where it begins, which, after more than 2.5 hours of watching, is a bit anti-climatic. Nevertheless, it is highly entertaining.

Ramsey: Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.
A few thoughts :
I do wonder whether this movie gives a realistic vision of prisoner of war camps in Germany : the prisoners et healthy and strong, activities include gardening, and singing – these conditions seem much better from some of the summer camps where I have been when I was younger, just saying….True, one man is shot trying to escape and the Gestapo brutally murders 50 guys, but prior to that they seem to have a pretty good time in the camp : the Germans are made to look pretty stupid on some occasions, practically handing them the tools they need, hardly watching them, and leaving them alone for meetings and planning, never checking on their whereabouts ! That part was hilarious to me. There is no random violence from the Germans like what I saw in The Pianist, for instance. I hear the movie was made at a time where people were in denial that The Holocaust happened. That, or it is just the fact that, a tour time and age, there is less and less limitation as to what we are shown on screen. Maybe film making back then was just more discreet, suggesting instead of showing. Here, all in all, the film plays out as upbeat, sometimes comical entertainment : most of the prisoners seem to enjoy trying to escape, frustrating their captors.

Von Luger: What were you doing by the wire?
Hilts: Well, like I told Max... I was trying to cut my way through your wire because I want to get out.

Von Luger: Are all American officers so ill-mannered?
Hilts: Yeah, about 99 percent.
Von Luger: Then perhaps while you are with us you will have a chance to learn some. Ten days isolation, Hilts.
Hilts: CAPTAIN Hilts.
Von Luger: Twenty days.
Hilts: Right. Oh, uh, you'll still be here when I get out?

What changes this film from a WW II movie is this funny aspect, which diminishes the very real danger and actually almost makes the Nazi regime look like a joke, at times.
Steve McQueen has a fairly small role, but he shines. Also, I loved Charles Bronson. That said, I still insist some aspects of WW II are fairly unbelievable, but the tension, suspense and comedy just draws the spectator in. And of course, there is the famous motorcycle scene, a tad irrelevant to the movie, but a scene that gives Steve McQueen his « time to shine on screen », and still remains very enjoyable :
So what makes it great ? It is difficult to explain : the film goes through time, is hugely captivating, and the cast is simply extraordinary. The is no lesson learned, no soul searching, no romance, it is simply an action story, exciting from the beginning till the end, in spite of a bittersweet ending.

A classic.

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