Throwback Thursday: The Great Escape (1963)


With this week marking Remembrance Day, I felt it only right to take a look back at a war film. Whilst the most obvious choice may have been to look at films like Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day or even Platoon and Apocalypse Now; I’ve decided to take a look at The Great Escape because it fascinates me in terms of its true story and actual production. Whereas many war films have successfully shocked and moved us through their depiction of the brutality and horror of conflict; The Great Escape is a different beast all together. A perfect blend of fact and fiction, it tells the true story of Allied prisoners of war who were sent to an apparently impenetrable Nazi camp during WWII. With the majority of the prisoners sporting extensive attempted escape records, they immediately began to plan their get away by digging three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry. What followed was the biggest mass-breakout during the conflict that ultimatley led to the mass murder of fifty prisoners.

We’re told at the beginning that whilst the depiction of the escape itself is accurate, creative liberties have been taken with the characters and some of the other incidents featured in the story. This gives writers W.R Burnett and James Clavell the opportunity to create a war based film that entertains and thrills before moving you. The films final act contains a plane crash, a on-foot pursuit through a city and of course the infamous Steve McQueen motorcycle chase; an epic Hollywood climax if there ever was one. It’s all very “Hollywood” in fact with an ensemble cast that includes some of the most charismatic and popular actors of the day that include the aforementioned McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the late/great Richard Attenborough. Marketed as an adventure with big-names attached and accompanied by one of the greatest and most exciting scores in history from Elmer Bernstein; it is a surprisingly uplifting watch and has a comedic streak running throughout.

There’s an almost quintessential British civility about the film and it has interesting characterisation of the Nazi officers in charge of the camp. They are given a rare humanity and portrayed as men who would much rather see the war come to an end from their current position of safety, as opposed to cause unnecessary quarrel with the prisoners. This leads to an interesting and ambiguous relationship between the two as the soldiers carry out their duty to cause as much disruption as possible to the German army, whilst the officers are fully aware of the implications should they escape and the Gestapo catch them.

While a highly enjoyable experience on the surface, it isn’t to say that The Great Escape is void of any emotion or brutality. There are a number of plot threads that are heartbreaking to watch that include the growing mental anguish of Ives, the increasing blindness of Blythe and obviously the execution of the fifty. These moments are considerably moving but disguised between all the action and the comedy that is usually absent from a film of this kind. Whilst it may not challenge or shock in the way we’ve come to expect from a war film, The Great Escape is none the less a poignant and respectful story about the unbreakable and indomitable spirit of the the Allies during the harshest of circumstances. Whilst we should never forget the true horror of what troops fighting in the past and present have faced, The Great Escape is more of a celebration of the courage and determination of people who go to war.

Trivia Tidbit: One day, the police in the German town where the film was shot set up a speed trap near the set. Several members of the cast and crew were caught, including Steve McQueen. The Chief of Police told McQueen “Herr McQueen, we have caught several of your comrades today, but you have won the prize [for the highest speeding].” McQueen was arrested and briefly jailed.

Next Week: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

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