Monday, August 1, 2011

Classic Movie Review: The Great Escape

It’s hard for me to get behind a movie that paints Nazis as benevolent and forgiving. John Sturges’ classic war film The Great Escape would have us believe that the real evils in the European front of WWII were the exclusive purview of the Gestapo. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, are depicted as kindly, obedient and good-natured soldiers and officers just doing their jobs. So when British officers attempt escape from a prison camp, the response of the Kommandant is generally along the lines of, “Aw shucks, you guys. Are you at it again? Solitary confinement for you.” But the Gestapo officers are established right away as torturers, the subjects of the wary eyes of the Luftwaffe officers, who know they’re also being watched.

The majority of The Great Escape’s first two acts has a lighthearted and airy tone, not at all in keeping with my (or possibly anyone’s) idea of life in a Nazi POW camp. But then, this was Hollywood in the early 1960s. The country was not yet disheartened by the morass of Vietnam or the counter-culture revolution. The actions of both prisoners and guards are treated by each with mutual respect and understanding for the duty of the other: the British officers have it as their duty to attempt to escape while the guards’ duty is to thwart any and all attempts.

In this particular case, the prison is newly built especially for all the top escape artists in the Nazi prison system. The Luftwaffe believe that by having them all in one place they can devote fewer resources toward the vigil. The British officers see it as an opportunity. By having all the talent and expertise at their disposal, they can combine their skills to perpetrate perhaps the largest mass excursion from a POW camp ever attempted – a Great Escape, if you will.

The prisoners are comprised of an all-star cast of British and American actors. The marquee name is Steve McQueen, who plays Captain Hilts, otherwise known as “The Cooler King” for the volume of days he spends in solitary. Other Americans tossed into the mix (no doubt predominantly for their appeal to American audiences at the time) are James Garner as “The Scrounger” or the guy who seems to magically come by almost any requested item for things like forging documents, making civilian clothes and digging tunnels. James Coburn plays an Australian with one of the most terrible phony accents in the history of cinema. And Charles Bronson is Danny “The Tunnel King,” sporting an unconvincing Polish accent. He’s the guy who does the lion’s share of the digging, despite a late-revealed phobia tossed in for little more than heightened tension during the escape. The big names from the other side of the pond include Donald Pleasance as “The Forger” and Richard Attenborough as “The Big X” – the guy responsible for overseeing the planning of the exodus.

As noted above, the screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the non-fiction book by Paul Brickhill, takes its sweet time turning serious. The light and jokey tone lends nothing to an atmosphere that in real life was most likely fraught with tension and life or death consequences. Director John Sturges makes up for it in the final hour, after the escape from the prison itself is successful and the real escape begins as the men have to find their way outside of Nazi-occupied territory. For a film that’s dedicated to those who didn’t survive the escape, I’m surprised to see the planning and preparation stages treated with what can only be described as contempt for the truth.

But The Great Escape is successful as a popular rendition of a WWII story. It’s got great pacing, and establishes clear action and goals. Clavell and Burnett’s screenplay does a fantastic job using dialogue to give clear indications of where things are in the camp and how they plan to escape. It’s unabashed in its patriotic splendor. It’s not entirely unlike The Bridge on the River Kwai, made only 6 years earlier, and also concerned with the patriotic duty of British officers.

Still, I find it troubling the film’s treatment of the Luftwaffe guards in contrast to the ruthless Gestapo. We mustn’t ever forget that what was achieved by Nazi Germany was not only possible through the oppressive tactics and distorted views of a small faction within the military. It was systematic from the top down and everyone in the military was complicit, no matter how benevolent Hollywood writers and directors were in their treatment of certain Nazis in some pieces of entertainment.

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