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GREAT ESCAPE, THE(director: John Sturges; screenwriters: W. R. Burnett/James Clavell/from the novel by Paul Brickhill; cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp; editor: Ferris Webster; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Steve McQueen (Capt. Virgil Hilts), James Garner (“The Scrounger”), Richard Attenborough (“Big X”), James Donald (“The SBO”), Charles Bronson (“The Tunnel King”), Donald Pleasance (“The Forger”), David McCallum (“Dispersal”), James Coburn (“The Manufacturer”), John Leyton (“The Tunneller”), Gordon Jackson (“Intelligence”); Runtime: 168; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Sturges/James Clavell; United Artists/MGM Home Entertainment; 1963)
“The title also suits the film’s ultimate aim to be a great escape film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A classic mainstream WWII POW escape yarn, though far-fetched is based on an actual story. It had an all-male cast and was filmed in Germany. The title also suits the film’s ultimate aim to be a great escape film. It’s penned by W. R. Burnett and James Clavell, and is based on the 1950 novel by Paul Brickhill. The author was a POW in Stalag Luft North, the camp of the escapees, and was interested in telling their heroic story as it happened. He refused to sell the rights to the book until he was promised the buyer would keep it accurate. Producer-director John Sturges (“Never So Few”/”Bad Day at Black Rock”/”The Magnificent Seven”) exaggerates the events but supposedly keeps it mostly accurate, entertaining, filled with noble sentimentality and stirring. On the negative side, it’s overlong, uneven and looks phony. It is recognized as one of the most liked films ever. The ensemble piece has American actors such as James Garner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn have their moment to shine, but so do Brit actors Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence and John Leyton. But it’s Steve McQueen’s picture, especially through his unforgettable daredevil motorcycle sequence at the climax; he’s at his most cocky and rebellious best, chewing the scenery with the best of hams.

It opens in 1942 with 70 Allied officers who have escaped repeatedly being transported by truck to a newly built German maximum security prison that houses 250 prisoners and is run by the Luftwaffe. The Allied officers all believe that it is their duty to escape or to cause as much trouble as possible for the enemy, such as keeping them on guard duty and away from the front. As soon as they arrive, they immediately plan an escape.

British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) masterminds the whole plan of digging tunnels for the escape of the 250 prisoners. Bartlett commands his motley squad featuring the likes of James Garner as the scrounger, a charming rogue with a talent for theft; Donald Pleasence as a masterful forger who is going blind; Charles Bronson as a Polish trench-digging expert who veers from tough determination to panic attacks due to claustrophobia; James Coburn is the laid-back Australian and Steve McQueen plays the wise ass Hilts and is known as “The Cooler King” because of his frequent stays in solitary confinement. Hilts is the self-centered rebel with his own escape plan, who when caught is placed in solitary confinement and pounds his baseball mitt to kill time. By the climax he becomes a team player and his motorcycle stunt aids the big escape plan.

The film follows these prisoners as they ingeniously go about digging three tunnels, and their eventual escape even though one tunnel was discovered beforehand. A few make it, while others are recaptured or meet a tragic end.

The true story has on the night of March 24, 1944, Squadron Leader Bartlett and 75 other officers, supplied with forged identity papers and civilian clothes, breaking out of the camp through a tunnel. Bartlett and 49 others were recaptured and murdered by the Gestapo. The rest, except for three officers who made it back to England, were returned to prison.

Elmer Bernstein’s exciting score adds to the tension.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”