Here we go…
1963’s The Great Escape is quite the iconic film, parodied and tributed so many times in so many ways (remember this one?). Steve McQueen dominates the proceedings, ably supported by fellow icons Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough, along with the wonderful David McCallum, best known today as Duckie. Our guest of honor, Donald Pleasence, doesn’t do too shabbily, either, but we’ll get to that.
And of course, there’s the Elmer Bernstein theme in all its marvelous earworminess:
The movie opens at Stalag Luft III, where a bunch of new prisoners have been dropped off. This is no ordinary camp, either, as it’s reserved for the incorrigibles, the escape artists who just can’t help themselves. No matter where they are, they have to bust out.
Stalag anticipates this. There are not only the requisite double barbed wire fences and guard towers, but the soil comes in different colors and the barracks are raised two feet off the ground to discourage tunneling. There are guards everywhere all the time and they know all the tricks.
On the other hand, the inmates are promised that if they don’t cause any trouble, they can comfortably wait out the war. There’s a library full of books, food is sparse but somewhat edible, there are classes they can take in various subjects, a theater, sports, plus the Red Cross sends care packages.
It might all seem like a sweet deal, but escape artists are gonna escape, or at least try to because it’s their right. Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald) hatch a plan to break out two-hundred fifty men, and it’s not outside the realm of feasibility, seeing as they’ve got a dream team of guys all ready to go. There are Tunnel Kings, an expert forger, a scrounger, a crack manufacturer, and even the resident all-round guy, Virgil Hills the Cooler King (Steve McQueen), and between all of them they cook up an elaborate system of digging and disposing of the dirt, plus sneaking wood, tools, and other accoutrements. There are three tunnels, nicknamed Tom, Dick, and Harry, with a ventilation system, a tunnel cart, and even electricity.
Stealth, of course, is very important. That dirt that has to magically disappear goes into several kitchen gardens outside the barracks, the sounds of digging and pounding are easily covered up by a boisterous choir singing Christmas carols, and an ornithology lecture is an easy cover for a shop session. Is the project getting too loud? No problem. Sing louder.
The plan almost goes awry when Hills, scrounger Hendley (James Garner), and Second Lieutenant Goff (Jud Taylor), good Americans they are, make up a whole lot of moonshine from hoarded potato peelings, then march through the camp to share their stash because it’s the Fourth of July. It’s kind of a dicey idea because alcohol is obviously like truth serum and this particular batch is pretty potent, but then again, steam must be let off somehow.
Fortuntately, or not, things don’t get that far. While the party is going on, the Nazi guards discover the entrance to one of their tunnels, which forces the plan to get moved up. They might be fourteen feet short of the goal and nowhere near the cover of the forest, but they’ll make it work. Will they all succeed? Will they live to tell the tale? Those are the big questions.
So. Again, this movie is all kinds of iconic and all kinds of fantastic. Its ponderous two and a half hours fly by because there’s so much going on and there’s quite a bit of fun despite the serious subject matter. Like when the guys get rid of that extra dirt. Lieutenant Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) invents special bags that they hide in their slacks. When they get to a safe place, they pull the strings and the dirt comes pouring out, which is both cool and comical.
To be sure, the film has quite a few inaccuracies, although they got a lot right, such as the actual digging of the tunnels and the number of men who were in on the operation. It also accurately depicts what happened after the escape, namely the murder of fifty of the escapees by the Gestapo.
On the other hand, it downplays the number of Canadians who were involved, and it shows the characters killing Germans, which didn’t happen. It also falsely claims that there were a lot of Americans who were in on the plan, which they were, but they had been moved by the time the tunnel was somewhat ready. A number of the German prison guards helped out as well, giving the men railway timetables and official letterhead for forging papers. There’s also a scene in which Hills jumps a motorcycle over barbed wire, which definitely didn’t happen either but has to because it’s Steve McQueen we’re talking about.
As for our man of the weekend, Mr. Pleasance, he gets to make his own mark in the film, albeit a quiet one, as Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, who loves birdwatching and can not only draw every bird perfectly but imitate any bird call he wants. He’s an expert forger so his job during the big escape attempt is to craft fake papers for all the men, and they’re so good no one can tell the difference between the fakes and the reals.
When the time for escape draws closer, Blythe realizes he’s got progressive myopia, or nearsightedness. He tries to hide it because he wants to escape more than anything, but he also doesn’t want to be a burden, and Pleasance’s performance is beautifully sensitive. His grief and sadness are all over his face, and his eyes shine when he finds out his colleagues don’t want to leave him behind. It’s not a terribly big part, but it’s an important one because it shows the care the men had for each other.
The Great Escape is one of those films that should not be missed. It’s both the story of a significant event behind enemy lines and a great showcase for its stellar cast.
For more of the devilishly delightful Donald Pleasance, please see Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry at Cinematic Catharsis. Thanks for hosting this, Gill and Barry–it was a lot of fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for another review…
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