The Great Escape

Action, Action, Action

An essay by: Witney Seibold


            Those who know me know that I am not a great fan of Action films. There was a point in my early adolescence where a good motorcycle chase, gun battle, or massive explosion would set my inner table on a roar, but as my tastes branched out, I began to find more interest in humanity or aesthetic over quick movement and loud noises. For that matter, nor am I into War films too much. I’m also quiet and intellectual and, despite my sexuality (i.e. incorporating females), kind of effeminate. Thus, it’s not really in my nature to like a film like the 1963 manly prison war film actioner “The Great Escape.” Despite my inclinations, however, I love “The Great Escape.” It is fun, it is clever, it is classy, it is clean, and it is very well made (aside: I realize it’s kind of odd to even label this film as an “action” film, as it mostly takes place in a prison, with sneaking about and being quiet; it only explodes into chases and running near the end).

Modern action films seem to be lacking a briskness and brightness that was a given for action films of the 1960s. These days we’re mostly treated to high-budget, action-event junktaculars made by Michael Bay (“The Rock,” “The Island,” The Pain), or hopelessly cheap and inept mediocrities based on videogames (one of the worst films I have seen this year was called “Doom,” and was based on a popular videogame). They have the good sense to take the action set pieces seriously, but nothing else; they will dismiss the strength of the characters and the importance and realism of the stakes in favor of a long-winded, hyperactive chase/intermission. They lack panache, they lack style, they lack character and humanity, they lack structure. They lack any sense of fun.

(This is not to say all modern action films are bad; see “Batman Begins.” But it is my general complaint about the genre, and the filmmaking trappings and pitfalls usually incorporated therein)

            John Sturges’ “The Great Escape” has all of these qualities in spades. We care about the people, we understand their goal, we understand their motivations, we understand what’s at stake, and we do all of it while smiling at them, cheering them on, and thumbing our noses at the Nazi captors. The setup is so very simple, and yet so very satisfying: A group of Allied troops, all of them famous for escaping war prisons, have been shipped into a special stalag, supposedly unescapable; the Nazi captors feel that they’re less of a risk if they’re all in one place where they can be closely observed. The soldiers, of course, hatch a scheme to free every single one of the prisoners in the camp by tunneling underneath the fence.

            And we get our ground rules and goals: we need European street clothes, so we’re not conspicuous. Get some dyes and cloths. We need papers. Get a forger. We need wood to hold up the tunnel. Strip the beds. We need an upstart to distract the Nazis. Get Steve McQueen. Every contingent is planned out and organized. And every person’s unique talent is utilized. In fact, each of the characters is indentified in the credits by their specialty (James Garner is Bob “The Scrounger” Hendley, Charles Bronson is Danny “The Tunnel King” Velinski, Donald Pleasance is Colin “The Forger” Blyth). The film’s plot is so organized and so tightly written that we’re so happy to see the soldiers overcome each obstacle. We know some blackmail must take place, so there’s blackmail of a soldier. How do we get ride of the dirt from the tunnel? Run it out our pantlegs.

            And once everything is in place, we are rewarded with the silent and beautiful escape of the prisoners. And by that point, we know the characters well, know the risks, and are on the edge of our seats, knowing that they may not escape after all, and hoping, o hoping, that they do.

            So we have: a) working for a common goal, b) using personal talent and intelligence for the greater good, c) an easy-to-picture and highly desired result, d) interesting people doing it, e) an historical context that is familiar to most people, and f) a sense of humor (see below). It’s a film about The Quest.

            The screenplay was written by W.R. Burnett and famed potboiler author James Clavell (King Rat, Shogun, the screenplay to 1958’s “The Fly”). The mixture of class and potboiler elements is evident.

            Humor vs. threat

            I need to address Nazis. Nazis, as we all know from various history textbooks, were murdering, heartless bastards led by a mentally unbalanced tyrant. They may have had a glorious plan to restore purity to Europe, they may have been working-class people who felt they had been given the financial shaft by the post-WWI depression, they may have been merely following orders under an increasingly harsh regime, but no one even bothers to argue that the Nazi party was an evil thing.

            And yet, in “The Great Escape,” the Nazis, especially at the beginning, are no more threatening than strictly harsh schoolmarms who may be quick to shoot, but seem just as quick to forgive. Indeed, they are even bound by war laws not to kill any of the Allies. So what’s the threat? Nothing, really. The Nazis are like the Romans in Astérix comics, or the Storm Troopers in “Star Wars.” They may have guns, and they may be enemies, but no one in the audience is convinced that they are capable of real harm.

            They are, at best, comic villains. Which is fine, as it allows us to see our heroes more clearly. If our heroes defy the Nazis, they’re seen as heroic. If the same defiance was shown to trigger-happy evil Nazis, they’re attitude would only be foolish. And one thing you don’t want is a foolish hero.

            This lackadaisical fantasy of the doting, vaguely threatening Nazis would make me uncomfortable, had it not change as the film progressed. As the tunnels get longer, and nerves begin to shred, the Nazis remain a very real presence. The Nazis suspect something, and they’re not going to be deterred by lack of anything suspicious. They continue to press, and we, the audience begin to feel the heat. By the time the escape finally takes place, we know that our heroes, if caught, will actually die.

            It’s a very clever way to shape the heroes and involve the audience by toying with the perception of the villain. They are funny and give the heroes a real and bright sense of humor about their situation; it’s easy to joke when the threat isn’t as great. Then, as the threat increases, the humor becomes more gallows. Then, by the end, the threat is palpable, and the characters are already imbued with our sympathy. I can think of few other films that do such a thing.

            The chase

            And now I address the famous Steve McQueen motorcycle chase:

The director of “The Great Escape,” John Sturges, is also the man who helmed such films as “Ice Station Zebra,” “The Hallelujah Trail,” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” films that all have similar qualities of being laced with manly action, but still being light and engaging. The action film as we know it today was shaped by such films. I mentioned above that action films take the action too seriously. John Sturges comes from a golden age in action films when the action was advertised on the poster, and was used to lure people into the theater, but, when the chips finally fell, in was the tough, leather-clad characters and the damn-The-Man-or-make-fun-of-Him attitude and the story that kept us interested. The hard-boiled, manly, idiosyncratic iconoclasts. The well-structured fun. The skill and confidence (not only of the characters in themselves, but also of the filmmakers in the characters and material).

            Most action films deal in archetypes. This can be dome well (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” some of the James Bond movies), or poorly (take your pick). I think it all boils down, though, to confidence. If you trust your characters, they’ll carry the film. If you don’t, throw in another chase scene.

            The Chase Scene, I think (at least as we know it today; there have been many, many examples in earlier films), began with this film. Which is a pity because the chase scene in “The Great Escape” was probably the least interesting thing about it. Steve McQueen loves his motorcycle, though, so the writers were forced to insert one (McQueen actually made the first jump himself, the other was a stunt driver. One of the Nazis chasing him was also, in many shots, played by McQueen). The chase goes on for too long, and while it’s fun and freeing to finally have speed and movement after all the slow sneaking and tunneling and scrounging, it’s obviously unnecessary. It’s like the “Gotta Dance” number in “Singin’ in the Rain.” It may be a colorful display of the lead’s talents, but what the hell is it doing in this movie? We don’t need the chase.

            It did, though, regardless, become the new standard in the chase scene, bringing the skill to a new level and allowing more spectacular chases in “Bullitt,” and “The French Connection” to exist. A good chase can actually be fun and thrilling.

The Cast

Steve McQueen, known for his lupine manliness, and sense of humor (and included, as comic Eddie Izzard once indicated, to bring American dollars into this otherwise all-British production). Richard Attenborough, the penultimate RSC actor, and, later, director of “Magic,” “Ghandi,” and “Cry Freedom.” James Garner, from “Maverick,” and goofy and fun. James Coburn, playing a Brit, but with his distinct gnashing panache. Donald Pleasance, calm and mousy and calm and wonderful. Charles Bronson, a badass before he was born.

Wow! What other film has so many screen legends in one place? All we’re missing is maybe Jack Lemmon and John Gielgud.

I won’t gush about the actors, I’ll let them stand for themselves.

The True Story

            “The American is brought back to the cooler, and all the British characters are all rounded up and shot through the head. What kind of message does that send to British youths watching this film?” –Eddie Izzard, British comic.

It’s often easy to forget, but “The Great Escape” was based on true events. The book by Paul Brickhill was actually quite closely followed, inventing little. Brickhill was a soldier who was shot down over Tunisia, and who actually did assist in the escape from the Stalag Luft III war prison. The prison was designed to accurately resemble to actual Stalag Luft III. The escape actually did take place on 24th March, 1944.

Real people came up with these innovative escape methods, and actually did use them to escape. The Nazis did actually catch up with them, and only three were ever actually free. It’s inspiring and bittersweet. The only things that were made up were: the motorcycle chase (natch), Donald Pleasance’s problems with vision, and the Americanization of some of the Allied characters (presumably to rake in more American dollars). McQueen’s character, Hilts, was actually, I have learned, based on several different people, including a Doolittle Raid pilot and a North African OSS general.

Of the 73 prisoners who escaped, only three made it. The film depicts all those recaptured being killed in a bunch, but they were actually killed in small groups. About 50 were killed as punishment for escaping, and 14 Nazi soldiers were actually tried and executed for such a harsh punishment. In fact, the shootings of the captured escapees was brought up in the charges against Hermann Göring during the Nuremburg Trials.

How great that such a story existed. How inspiring that they were able to actually plan and execute such a daring feat. How tragic that they were caught and killed. How bittersweet that, despite the deaths of all our heroes, the struggle to escape must forge ahead, and Hilts will remain in the cooler.

 “The Great Escape” is one of the greatest action films there is. It’s not going to possess any really deep philosophies, naturally; none of the characters are going to stop and give long Shakespearean speeches about the importance of humainty’s effect on the inner souls of yadda-yadda-yadda. The film does not need a great deep of pretentious references to literature or turgid sophist dramatic snobbery to be appreciated (and I admit that some of the films on my list are there because of their turgid sophist dramatic snobbery), but it will contain inspiration, intelligence, fun, tension, action, a great cast, and skill. All of these things are right there on the surface, readily available to anyone who merely sits and watches it. And that’s all I ask for in an action flick.

Published in: on July 16, 2007 at 9:43 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Good article! THE GREAT ESCAPE is one of my all time favorite movies. A true classic. Great score!

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