Director: John Sturges
Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence
Streaming: Netflix, Apple TV (Rent, £3.49; Buy, £3.99), Sky Store (Rent, £3.49; Buy, £7.99), Rakuten (Rent, £4.99; Buy, £9.99), Prime Video (Buy, £5.99)
I have absolutely no doubt that all on-screen prison breaks in the last 50 years were either partially or totally inspired by The Great Escape. The tropes of the escape tunnel being rilliantly hidden in plain sight; the painstakingly slow and overelaborate plans; waiting for a louder noise to cover the sound of chiselling or hammering; the close-up shots on ominous watchtowers and the guards inhabiting them… this film may not have invented them, but it certainly popularised them.
In 1942, the Nazi armed forces move 250 of the most slippery Allied POW escapees to a high-security camp in Germany (which, on paper, sounds like a terrible idea). From the very first minute - from the title, even - their intent is made plain and simple: they try to escape.
The Great Escape is an ensemble film. This meant that it was big news when it was released. The concept of an all-star cast certainly wasn’t new in 1960s Hollywood, but it was around this time that the meaning of the word “celebrity” evolved in an unprecedented way. Films like the Rat Pack Ocean’s 11, The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon A Time In The West are great examples.
The King of Cool, Steve McQueen, is probably the poster boy for this movement, and The Great Escape is probably the best example. Why? Because more than it is a film that is “good” or “bad”, it is (and was) iconic. McQueen’s motorcycle jump remains the most famous stunt in cinema history (and it is still really damn cool almost 60 years on). But rather than being a time capsule for the Second World War, as its subject matter would imply, watching The Great Escape today brings a little slice of the Golden Age of Hollywood to your living room.
As a storytelling exercise, it is great, but not without fault. Today, it feels slightly insufficient when it comes to depicting general Nazi atrocities. The Luftwaffe guards feel more camp than they do evil. This is partially addressed through the disillusionment of the camp’s “kommandant”, Oberst von Luger, but the Nazis still feel like prison guards first and Nazis second.
And as for the characters, there are too many to isolate any standout moments of stellar development. They’re all well-written and distinct enough, and enjoyable to watch, but the film flicks between characters far too often to give any of them real substance.
I think a real sign that a film - or a performance - is good is when it stops you looking at a famous actor on the screen and registering them by their real name. For instance, in Indiana Jones, I see Harrison Ford and think “Indy”; in Star Wars, I think “Han”.
When watching The Great Escape, I never saw characters; I saw Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Donald Pleasence, and Charles Bronson. I never “forgot” that the film was a high-budget, well-assembled ensemble cast flying, motorcycling, rowing, and running away from Nazis.
Does that stop it from being a truly “artistic” cinematic endeavour? Maybe. But does it stop it from being a highly enjoyable film? No. Not at all.