Monday 9 December 2013

The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape is a number of things. It is a POW-film, it is a war film, it is a buddy film while also an ensemble piece, and a film about resilience and the urge for freedom. And based on a true story, although, as is usually the case, the true story has been altered for various reasons. Some changes have been made for efficiency, some for drama, some on requests from the real people involved, and some out of convenience I suppose. But the basic facts are the same, hundreds of allied prisoners worked together to escape from a German prison camp in 1944. 76 managed to escape before the guards sounded the alarm.

The real escape project took about a year, making the film took about four months and the film is three hours long, and it is never dull. It takes its time, being methodological and patient, but it gives time for the characters to grow and learn, to befriend each other and interact, and share moments of both joy and terror. In that respect it is a very humane film, where even the German commander of the camp (played by Hannes Messemer) is a human being, trying to be kind and just and often appalled by the horrors and loss of life that is part of war. That the characters are almost all played by big stars, British and American, does not matter for with the exception of Steve McQueen they all become their parts and disappear into the group. Among them are James Garner, James Donald, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence and James Coburn.

The force behind the film is John Sturges, who produced and directed it at the height of his career, riding on the success of Magnificent Seven (1960), and he was intimately involved in all aspects of the film. To some extent it was his baby, and the decision to shoot it in Germany instead of in Hollywood is undoubtedly a big factor in the film's appeal. It was a very complex project, logistically (for example they built a whole prison camp outside Munich) and personally, with a lot of issues and difficulties among the cast. It is not Sturges's best film but it shows his skills and his particular concerns (like how the film manages to be uplifting and downbeat at the same time).

Sturges had problems with Steve McQueen who apparently was very insecure, and testy, on set. But that does not come off in the film as he is one of the best things about it, if not the best thing. He stands out because his character Hilts is a loner, who spends most of his time in "the cooler", an isolation cell, where he sits for days on end throwing his baseball. (Hence he was called "the cooler king" in the film, which may have led to McQueen being called "the king of cool".) The story was changed to a large degree to accommodate McQueen and the sequence with him on a motorcycle was invented, almost on set, and a good thing too because that sequence is a highlight of the film. The whole film is, as I said, about resilience and the urge for freedom, and nothing captures this like Hilts stealing a Triumph from a German soldier and heading for the Swiss border. There are several things here that work together. The fact that it is real, no digital effects or studios, but McQueen on a motorcycle in Germany (the actual jump through barbed wire was done by Bud Ekins for insurance reasons) is one thing. Another is the way the landscape and the motorcycle work together. Sturges keeps the camera far from the action and pans left and right to show how small the men and their vehicles are compared to the mountains and the hills. And then there is the sense of freedom, in two ways. Hilts alone on his bike, instead of in an isolation cell, is one aspect of freedom, physical freedom. The other is more spiritual. He does not make it, he gets caught in the barbed wire and is captured by the Germans, but in the moment of defeat he smiles. The Germans may have captured his person but his spirit is not caught or broken. He has not given up. He will live on, to fight and to escape again.

An earlier post about Steve McQueen is here. For another post about human resilience see the one about Gravity. There will be more about John Sturges in a post next year.

This post is part of a join venture for Filmspanarna, a collection of film bloggers from Sweden. Here are links to the other participants posts on The Great Escape. The first is in English, the others in Swedish.
The Velvet Café, Jojjenito, Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, Movies-Noir, Moving Landscape, Fiffi.We saw the film at Cinemateket in Stockholm so we could experience it on a very big screen.