In the midst of World War II, the Germans have decided to house all the prisoners-of-war who’ve made numerous escape attempts into one escape-proof camp. But by doing so, the Germans have placed all the best escape artists in one location, and it doesn’t take long until they all plan their “great escape.” Based on a true story, the film follows a group of POWs who plan to take several hundred soldiers out of the camp in an effort to divert enemy attention away from the war and onto keeping them confined.
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.
As this past weekend was Memorial Day, I thought it was as good a time as any to finally watch The Great Escape. Like my other blind spot entries this year, this film has been on my mental watchlist for the longest time, and it’s possibly been on there the longest of the 12 films. I’m happy to say it really exceeded my expectations in that respect. After watching it, I looked into the sort of reception it got the year it was released (namely Oscar reception) and was surprised that it only got one nomination, and wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. I’ve only seen two of the nominees that year (Cleopatra and winner Tom Jones) and really didn’t like either of them that much, so it’s especially disheartening to see that such a great film was ignored for the big prize. But anyway, back to the film itself…it runs at nearly three hours, but with its tight editing (the only Oscar nomination the film got), the film doesn’t feel very long at all. It’s constantly engaging with an array of characters as well with just how high the stakes are for them to pull off such a plan. Another aspect I loved was Elmer Bernstein’s score throughout the film, and the main theme is so memorable that it’s been referenced in other films since. Director John Sturges manages to balance the big moments of action and tension with quieter ones that deal with each character’s development as they live out their hopeless lives in the POW camp. As I mentioned above, what really elevates the film is the characters. There’s a little over a dozen of them that are part of the core group of schemers, and Sturges does a great job at giving each of them at least a couple of moments to really shine and thereby giving the audience a reason to care for them, which is especially important in the film’s last hour. The character Steve McQueen plays isn’t initially an important member of the group early on, and isn’t even featured heavily in the beginning of the movie, but he was magnetic in every appearance he made on screen and lived up to his movie star status. Other strong stand-outs for me include James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. But really, this is one of the most dynamic casts I’ve seen in a film, especially considering how big it is, so there are plenty of others that have outstanding moments in the film. All the actors are simply stellar in this, and I’d say they’re the biggest reason why this film works so well.
The Great Escape (1963)
Directed by: John Sturges
Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn
Oscar Nominations: Best Film Editing