Posted at 8:46 AM on July 31, 2006
by Euan Kerr
Trying to escape the heat over the weekend I was flicking through the cable channels and stumbled across "The Great Escape" in progress. It was the scene where Captain Hilts, the Cooler King, (Steve McQueen) tosses his baseball near the prison fence to test whether the guard towers can see him when he goes to fetch it. He ends up in the cooler with Flying Officer Archibald Ives "The Mole" (Angus Lennie) next door. Ives is on his way to cracking up.
I only watched about five minutes but it made me sad. I read the book long before I saw the film and it's an intensely tragic story, filled with valor but ending in mindless brutality.
The film is a cult favorite, and seems to be remembered for McQueen's biking prowess more than anything. The all-star cast is impressive, pulling in big names from both sides of the pond: Attenborough, Bronson, Coburn, Pleasence, et al.
Yet I find myself wishing now that director John Sturges had used a cast of unknowns. It might have distracted the audience less from the fact that almost every one of the escapers died.
I've never read the book.
But I thought the star power was put to good use, Each actor had a real screen presence, making the viewer quickly understand the different personalities.
So many of us are not drawn to a bleak story naturally. But wow- the stars projected a larger than life heroism that drew us into The Great Escape & kept the suspense up even as most the characters failed.
Certainly it could have been done with unknowns, and it might have worked (both artistically & commercially).
But "The Great Escape" was a case where the audience got their money's worth of star charisma.
So often a "name" is miscast & the picture misfires.
The Great Escape may not match the book.
But millions of us fought the Nazis for a few hours & were unbowed when the Nazis won (Like real life, the movie did not award either side complete victory)
In fact, what happened to the sequel? When the movie ended, weren't there were still prisoners inide the camps, and girls and motorcycles beyond the walls.? Let's put on a movie! (or two or three or four) I'm not above a little pandering when I escape to the movies. It's not like I would be reading Kirkegard if I weren't gawking at Steve McQueen's exploits.
And The Great Escape never slides into Sly or Arnold territory.
The Great Escape endures because it doesn't insult history or our intelligence. The film could have strung together a lot of of coincidences that enabled the escapees to show up and turn the tide of a battle or deliver a secret to Churchill, etc.
Well, for a while it was a whole genre, which sems to have petered out. "Escape from Colditz," "The Wooden Horse," and Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17." And those are the titles from the war in Europe. "The Bride over the River Kwai" and even "Empire of the Sun" from the war in the Pacific.
An area which we haven't seen so much about is what happened to Axis servicemen held by the Allies. I have a couple of friends who worked on a film "Another Time, Another Place" about Italian prisoners held on an island in Scotland. Because the soldiers seemed happy to be away from the fighting, and because they couldn't really escape from the island, they were allowed a great deal of freedom. The complications mount when a local woman falls in love with one of the POWs.