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The Great Escape (1963)

by on 2010/11/21

I recently read of a poll in which English audiences voted on their favourite movies to watch on Christmas Day. Men led the charge, voting The Great Escape their number one choice, while female viewers carried it to a respectable third place. Though impressed, I was also surprised. I’d never thought of this piece as festive. I suppose audiences find it to be family friendly, defensible as history, and generally entertaining.

The characters are fictionalized, yet the movie tells the true story of an escape from the notorious Stalag Luft III during World War Two. In this prison camp the Luftwaffe kept “all the rotten eggs in one basket”. Dedicated and resourceful, the Allied detainees join forces, rallying behind Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) to “mess up the works”. They intend to escape or, at least, drive the Germans to distraction.

In a genre packed with incredible ensembles, here is another one, including Charles Bronson (The Dirty Dozen), James Coburn, James Garner, David McCallum, Steve McQueen, and Donald Pleasance. They portray various members of the escape team: diggers, dispersers, forgers, manufacturers, moles, scouts, and scroungers. They risk doubt, discovery, failure, confinement, burial, capture, and execution, but they never give up, and inspire even as they entertain. Their experience is a broad, diverse tapestry, but never strays into undue complexity.

Yes, it has its failings, but they are few and minor.

  • The main title text resembles nothing so much as broken or unfiltered 3-D.
  • The visual effects in the cockpit of an airplane are eye-catchingly artificial in a production otherwise grounded (ahem) in reality.
  • Coburn’s accent is said to be Australian, presumably not of the Australia “down under” but one on the far side of the cosmos.

These issues I note only in the service of due diligence. As they’d never hinder a lesser effort, they certainly won’t affect this one.

A more substantial difficulty lies in the question as to why an unprecedented gathering of escape risks would be granted gardening tools. However the problem may be moot given the story’s basis in reality. We might as well ask history itself.

Watching it again, I noticed new things, and was reminded of forgotten ones: the friction between the prison overseers and the Gestapo, the addictively agonizing suspense (despite knowing the outcome) and, yes, the Christmas carols.

For my part, The Great Escape has been less about a holiday than family. As a youth, a generation ago, I spent a memorable Saturday evening watching it for the first time with my dad. He welcomed my joining him and — though I was confused they got the “Colonel Bogey” theme wrong (they didn’t) — I was entranced ever after. For years, when asked to name my favourite movie, this one got the nod.

Bear in mind the film is three hours long and probably ran four with commercials. To hold a kid’s attention for that span of time, especially with an “old” movie, recounting an even older story, well, I believe it may qualify as a miracle, Christmas or otherwise. On the other hand, the fact that anyone who gives it a chance will enjoy it is less a miracle than near certainty.

* * * * *

Rated G

172 minutes

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