Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Great Escape (1963) - movie review

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about the classic 1963 movie The Great Escape. Recently I watched the film again, and here are some more random thoughts about it.

One of the aspects of the film which intrigues me is the way in which relations between the camp authorities and the prisoners are portrayed. If not exactly warm or amicable, then there was at least some vague semblance of understanding, as fellow flyers perhaps?

The antipathy between the Luftwaffe officials running the camp and the Gestapo and SS is another significant sub-plot. This is displayed most clearly in the scene where "Big X" is first brought to the camp . One gets the impression that von Luger saw the Gestapo and the SS as enemies as much as he did the Allies. How closely all this was representative of the true historical picture remains open to discussion of course.

To most people The Great Escape is remembered for its action and adventure elements. However, it is often forgotten how much attention is devoted to moral issues and personal relationships. It's not exactly Ingmar Bergman, but the characters are not quite as one-dimensional as the film's reputation might imply.

Virgil Hilts, as played by Steve McQueen, is a rounded creation, and was seemingly a composite of several real-life characters. Truculent and abrasive, mostly towards his adversaries, but also capable of practicality and circumspection. His partnership with Ives is one of the more touching tangents in the movie. A similar scenario develops between Hendley (James Garner) and Blythe (Donald Pleasence). Contrasts in cultures and temperaments, but genuine warmth and affinity.

Mention of Hilts and Hendley leads us on to one of the perennially contentious topics surrounding The Great Escape, namely the notion that the American characters reap a disproportionate slice of the "glory". In my opinion this is a simplistic way of seeing matters. Yes, Steve McQueen participates in the iconic motorcycle sequences. However, at the same time it must be pointed out that the Americans come across as more realistic and measured in their approach to the proposed escape. Hilts, for example, initially questions the sanity of Bartlett's outlandish designs.

In contrast to their colleagues, the British seem to be placing too much emphasis on "duty", and are too sure of themselves, failing to take account of some sentiment and variables. There is a similar, if more acute, dynamic in The Bridge On The River Kwai, namely the tension between William Holden and his British colleagues.

As the character comes across in the film, Big X (as played by Richard Attenborough) is easy to admire and respect. He is the dynamic driving force and leader which all complex and fraught enterprises need. In Attenborough's portrayal he is single-minded, but watching the film unfold I wonder whether some of his subordinates are excessively deferential and receptive to his authority. Even Ramsey, who is nominally Big X's superior in the camp pecking order, seems powerless to intervene.

I know that it is churlish to nit-pick about the plausibility of aspects of the plot, but I'm going to do it anyway. The depiction of the planning stages for the escape makes one wonder how the Germans would not have uncovered or stumbled upon the preparations earlier than they did (they eventually found one of the tunnels). In all honesty, this small caveat does not detract from the quality of the film or its value as entertainment. After all this is a movie, not a documentary. Compromises such as this, and the compressing of timescales, were made to render the picture palatable and digestible for cinema-goers. The apparent ease with which Werner was able to procure a suitable camera for the prisoners is an example of this.

No minor gripes can obscure our admiration for the resourcefulness and courage required to get the escape bid organized in the first place, and co-ordinate the elaborate precautions. In spite of the occasional dissenting voice, there is a unity of purpose. The Germans scored an own goal by placing many officers together, with their obligations, and their wide range of technical expertise and personal attributes.

There are some "technical" matters which contribute to the flavour of The Great Escape. The tunneling scenes are beautifully shot, the set designs amply conveying the claustrophobia, the danger and the arduous nature of the work. The lighting in the tunnels is also beautifully executed and designed.

The sunlight in many of the "exterior" scenes has an almost baleful quality to it. This might have something to do with the film stock used, I'm not sure, and might therefore have been unintentional. Either way, it adds in a curious way to the atmosphere.

One of the more affecting relationships in the movie is that between Hendley and Werner, the camp guard. Werner's timid, vulnerable countenance belies a few stereotypes. These scenes almost leave one with a twinge of ambiguity, as the guard is manipulated and used by Hendley.

A criticism which I think is valid is that of the Gestapo and SS characters in the film. Both in their appearance and in their dialogue they feel like caricatures, and it is one of the few areas where a slight lack of finesse is discernible. Was it a rather clumsy attempt to introduce a clear contrast with the more moderate Luftwaffe personnel?

The pace and drama move up a notch with the "4th of July" festivities and the death of Ives. Elation and jollity turning to despair, but the grim resolve remained.

Does The Great Escape go on too long?  For the average 21st-century attention span maybe it does, but not to me. For a full appreciation of the intricacies and the twists, an above-average running time was imperative, and space is permitted for the various sub-texts to breathe.

Of the other acting performances, James Garner is assuredly, solidly impressive.  I have always liked him as an actor. Despite the often devious and underhand means which he employs, Hendley is a sympathetic character - compassionate, level-headed and strong, and Garner's persona is a major reason for this.

James Coburn's attempt at an Australian accent has attracted much comment down the years, but in his hands Sedgwick emerges as one of the most interesting figures in the group.  Despite his quirks, he displays more savvy than most in the aftermath of the escape.

The excitement and tension of the "post-escape" sequences is exacerbated by the contrast between the wide-open spaces of the German countryside and the confines of the camp. Life beyond the wire presented many perils, though. The escapees were running grievous risks, in wearing civilian clothing and carrying false identification papers, as is amply demonstrated in those sequences.

The Great Escape is not unremittingly gloomy, but neither is there much in the way of levity. The fate of those prisoners executed near the end reminds us that the realities could be very far removed from Boys' Own stuff, and also what this struggle was really about.

A thread which runs through the movie is that of Hilts' baseball glove and ball. It is unclear whether any special meaning was implied through this, but I suppose that the "thwack" of the ball hitting the wall of the cooler cell could be interpreted as a metaphor for defiance of the enemy, and/or a determination to carry on with established traditions. Also, a gesture of individualism, both directed at the enemy and against the world at large?

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