The Great Escape (1963)

Every few weeks we’d get stuck for a movie to watch on movie night, and the conversation would inevitably go like this:

Witches’ coven: So, what are we watching tonight?

Me: *pretends to think* Hey, how about The Great Escape?

Witches’ coven: NO!

I’ll try to sneak it in normal conversations, but the coven would know the moment I open my mouth what I’m going to say, and they preempt me with an emphatic NO.

I don’t get it. How can you not like a movie about one of the most daring POW escapes in World War II? I think I may have oversold it with my constant attempts and now they simply refuse out of principle.

The Great Escape is one of my favorite movies, and I can watch it everyday.  It’s the story of a group of Allied POWs in a German camp in World War II and how they crafted their plans to escape their prison. It has all the elements for a classic – adventure, suspense, and a little levity thrown in. And who’s in the movie, you ask? Oh, just James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen. Steve Mc-effing-Queen. The King of Cool himself.

The action starts the day the prisoners – all officers and mostly British, with three Americans, two of whom are Garner and McQueen – arrive at the camp. Almost every one has been transferred from various camps, and almost every one has tried to escape several times. The Germans plan to put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, and try to keep the escape artists together and so make it easier to guard them in one place. But in this they are sadly mistaken. Not ten minutes in, a few of the prisoners already try to escape – joining the Russian prisoners (who are kept separate) as they go out to clear the forests, or hiding in trucks filled with cut trees. McQueen starts casing the joint and immediately identifies the weak spots in the camp, from where he will stage his own escape. Attenborough arrives late in the camp, via special escort – all the better for him to have his dramatic entrance and be introduced to us as “Big X”, the acknowledged leader of all the escape artists. That same day, he convenes a meeting and declares that their goal is to tunnel out and free 250 prisoners.

The first half of the movie is the light part. Every one involved in the operation has a special role to fill. There are “stooges” with elaborate signal systems – a bit like complicated baseball signs – to let the others know when the guards are away or when it’s safe to talk. Others are in charge of staging carol practice to mask the sounds of the others’ digging and manufacturing of escape equipment. One group is in charge of tailoring the civilian clothes to be used by the prisoners after they escape. Another is in charge of forgeries – manufacturing fake IDs and papers for the rest. In one funny scene, the prisoners are having a lecture and drawing class on birds. It is so boring that the German guard in charge just goes out and leaves the room. It turns out that the drawing is just another ploy to cover their forgery work. And of course there are the tunnelers, led by the “Tunnel King” Charles Bronson. Everybody has to be creative with materials, because being in a POW camp severely limits your resources. James Garner is the scrounger, and his job is to procure everything and anything the others need for their own jobs. Sometimes this entails blackmailing one of the more gullible prison guards, other times it just means staging some diversions so he can steal from the Germans. James Coburn is in charge of manufacturing all the equipment they need for tunneling – air pumps, pulleys, pipes and lighting. (Coburn plays an Australian by the way, and I thought his accent was quite convincing that I had to IMDB him to find out if he really was Australian.) Everything is organized with clear delineation of duties and lines of reporting. In the books I’ve read on WWII, and especially the book The Great Escape itself, the prisoners all say that their single-minded focus on ways to escape kept them from giving up hope altogether. Some of these men have been POWs for three whole years so they literally just needed to do something.

There are trials along the way of course – the most notable of which is the Germans discovering their tunnel. But our heroes planned well and built two more, so they are still able to carry out their escape. This is the part of the film that features the famous motorbike chase scene with McQueen. One thing that’s hard to miss in this movie is how Steve McQueen is isolated. It’s true that there are only two Americans in the camp, and the escape is led by the British. But James Garner is an active member of that group, while McQueen is not. McQueen has his own attempts and is often put in isolation or the “cooler”, (which earns him the nickname “Cooler King”). In most accounts of the making of the movie, it turns out that this set-up is a reflection of real life. Apparently, he demanded script rewrites and bigger scenes by himself. And yet, it doesn’t make him hateable. He’s the King of Cool! (Wait. Is “Cooler King” a play on “King of Cool”? Whoa.)

This being a true story involving the Germans, and because I try to be conscientious about spoilers, let’s just say that the percentage of successful escapes is not 100%, because the Nazis and the Gestapo did a really evil thing.  However, some prisoners did escape and avoid recapture, so the commandant is sacked.  He is not a Nazi, and he probably has more in common with the Allied officers than we initially thought. So though you think the villains are clear-cut from the beginning, you surprisingly sympathize with the commandant in the end.

I could go on and on about this movie, but I’ll probably end up recapping every scene, so I won’t. I think the reason I love it so much is, even though the end does not turn out perfectly for our heroes, the movie makes you focus on the ingenuity and tenacity they showed when working on their plan. They may have been prisoners, but in a way they just refused to surrender.  This is one of the reasons I can watch it over and over, because surprisingly, it is still a feel-good movie.

There is a postscript to all this:

A couple of weeks ago, while prepping for movie night, and after I made my nth attempt to plug “The Great Escape”, my sister just casually said, “Hmm. Okay let’s try it.” What! And guess what. They loved it. They refused to admit it at first, but before we were halfway through, the coven was already emotionally invested. What’s going to happen to him? Is he going to make it? Does he *gasp* die? Tell me!

Success!