Blog Directory CineVerse: A gem of a jailbreak flick

A gem of a jailbreak flick

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Released in 1963, The Great Escape abides as a timeless war film directed by John Sturges and produced by United Artists. Centered around a group of Allied prisoners of war during World War II, the film depicts their daring escape plan from a German POW camp, based on the actual mass escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944. Boasting a cast of renowned actors such as Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and others, the picture is renowned for its iconic scenes, notably Steve McQueen's motorcycle chase, etching itself as one of the most memorable action sequences in cinematic history. The Great Escape also resonates with viewers worldwide thanks to its evergreen themes of resilience, determination, and camaraderie among the prisoners.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

The Great Escape offers an interesting compare and contrast from other war films, prison movies, and POW dramatizations. Many such works emphasize more explosive action, macho bravado, and impressive set pieces, as evidenced in The Guns of Navarone, Von Ryan’s Express, The Dirty Dozen, and Kelly’s Heroes. The Great Escape is arguably a more entertaining and emotional outing. For proof, consider how the filmmakers use sentiment, suspense, intrigue, tragedy, and light comedy to take our feelings on a roller coaster ride.

Criterion Collection essayist Sheila O’Malley touched on this approach: “The film is about a serious subject, told without self-seriousness. Because of this, it doesn’t date at all. It’s an ode to ingenuity and cooperation. Sturges was not at all a member of the counterculture, but The Great Escape’s spirit is pure up-yours antiestablishment, making it a forerunner of M*A*S*H, to Kelly’s Heroes, to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, to all the deconstructing, demythologizing war films to come.”

Moreover, The Great Escape is, along with several of these comparative films, a fantastic ensemble piece with colorful and arresting characters and action-oriented actors popular in their day among male audiences. Interestingly, although he is top-billed, McQueen is on screen for a relatively small amount of time (mostly in the second half), which signifies that this is more of a group effort by the actors. Still, this is probably the best movie and role of McQueen’s career. 

“The Great Escape popularized the prison movie trope of an ensemble defined by emblematic handles. James Garner’s resourceful American who can acquire any number of forbidden goods goes by 'The Scrounger.' Donald Pleasance is 'The Forger,' despite his increasing blindness. Bronson’s claustrophobic digger is called 'Tunnel King'…The list goes on,” wrote Deep Focus Review critic Brian Eggert.

This is less a picture about “the madness of war,” like Bridge on the River Kwai, than an inspirational somewhat true account of collective sacrifice. Kwai is also more of a battle of wills tale pitting one commanding officer—Alec Guinness—against his enemy counterpart. Additionally, in this story, the POWs are all honorable, trustworthy men; in Stalag 17, a major subplot is the presence of a mole/secret agent among the prisoners.

Some, like DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, posit that this is more of a caper/heist movie than a war film or prison escape picture. “The schemes, dodges, and con games used by the prisoners to carry out a huge tunneling operation are a caper far more elaborate than a bank job. They're also entertaining, funny, and credible,” Erickson wrote.

Although this is set during World War II and the Nazis are the easy-to-root-against antagonists, this is a war film that doesn’t give equal voice to their characters, nor does it mention or hint at the Holocaust. Yet we are reminded of their capacity for despicable acts, especially the cold-blooded massacring of the rounded-up prisoners on the hillside.

The value of teamwork, orchestrated collaboration, and group planning is a prime payoff message imbued herein. The Great Escape shows that solidarity among a group of individuals who accept pre-defined roles and responsibilities can create more successful and efficient outcomes. By assigning jobs to people based on skill and experience, following a chain of command, and maintaining discipline and self-control, even the most insurmountable of obstacles can be cleared.

This is also a movie that preaches the perks of turning lemons into lemonade. The resourcefulness and creativity of these men help them conquer one challenge after another, which proves that out-of-the-box thinking, improvisational skills, and on-the-spot ingenuity can make a huge difference in desperate situations.

The Great Escape certainly serves as a powerful grace under pressure narrative. Time and again, these prisoners of war must pivot, recalibrate, or start anew in their shared task of escaping and be willing to quickly adapt to changing conditions without panicking or quitting.

Arguably, the most important moral to the story is shared sacrifice. While Bartlett aims to get as many prisoners out of the camp as possible, his minimum objective is to complicate matters for the Third Reich by forcing Germany to devote men and resources to guard these highly elusive prisoners and capture any escapees. The men know that, even if they successfully escape the camp they may not be coming back alive, and many altruistically agree to help without any guarantee of escaping at all. The fact that they made a film about an incredibly impressive mass escape by 76 prisoners, but only three of them evaded capture or death, tells us that this is a narrative more about sacrifice and selflessness than man’s inherent need for freedom. Case in point: Recall the dialogue exchange at the conclusion. Hendley: “Do you think it was worth the price?” Ramsey: “Depends on your point of view, Hendley.” 

“The Great Escape cleverly turns a defeat into a tale of victory,” Erickson continued. “No matter how it's made to look, the bottom line of the mass escape is (that)…a lot of rebellious defiance mostly gets a lot of good men killed…we celebrate the protagonists as they dare to defy their German captors…We aren't bothered by the fact that their efforts had little effect on the war proper. But the trial-by-escape with its risk and sacrifice was a personal challenge for men otherwise unable to fight: civilized defiance.”

Reflect on how the German and English officers within the camp treat each other with basic dignity and respect even though the POWs are routinely defiant and will do everything in their power to break out. This dynamic of maintaining quiet mutual respect and abiding by an unspoken code of honor is a noteworthy facet of the film.

Alas, every person has his breaking point. We witness the stir-crazy Ives, desperate to escape, suffer an early demise. Even Danny, the toughest prisoner, suffers from severe claustrophobia and anxiety that can derail his hopes of escape; fortunately, he rises to the challenge and becomes one of only three POWs to flee and survive.

Similar works

  • Stalag 17
  • Grand Illusion
  • Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Von Ryan’s Express
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • Army of Shadows
  • Papillon
  • Soldier of Orange
  • Hart’s War
  • Escape From Sobibor
  • Films with a cast of assembled expert characters, including The Magnificent Seven, Oceans Eleven, Kelly’s Heroes, and The Expendables
  • Chicken Run, a CGI-animated remake of sorts

Other films by John Sturges

  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Bad Day at Black Rock
  • Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
  • Joe Kidd

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