Movie Rewind: “The Great Escape”
Matt Brown | Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Immeasurable pleasure can be gained from revisiting the great classics. No, not “Psycho,” “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane” or other black-and-white snorefests. This is about the classics: the golden age of baller movies was the age of the World War II movie. Any antagonist could be made a Nazi and boom! The movie suddenly has a widely disliked, sinister character capable of numerous atrocities. “Indiana Jones,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Guns of Navarrone” and “The Great Escape” all capitalize on this movie-making gift from above.
The premier escape movie, “The Great Escape” (1963), is about a group of American and British prisoners of war imprisoned behind enemy lines. The Nazis rounded up all the most troublesome prisoners with an uncanny propensity towards escape. The prisoners are placed in a special “stalag,” a camp they are all assured is inescapable. Within the first 20 minutes of the film we see many impromptu escape attempts, all foiled by the German officer in charge.
After the beginning excitement the prisoners begin to settle down and put more thought into their plans. The ranking officer, a British captain named Ramsey, and several other higher-ranking officers get together and plan a daring escape through three separate tunnels stretching out under the fence into the woods beyond. Work begins almost immediately on these tunnels as the prisoners organize into teams, digging, forging papers, obtaining supplies and creating disguises to be worn after escape.
Meanwhile, the American protagonist, Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen) continuously attempts escape (often inspiring laughter) and is captured, spending long lengths of time in “the cooler,” throwing his trusty baseball against the wall. As the movie progresses, the prisoners must overcome various hurdles, while McQueen continues to lend comedic relief and reckless bravado.
The moviemakers take full advantage of the British and American military stereotypes when creating their characters and the result are complex men that you can imagine running into on the street. The gentle ribbing banter between British and American prisoners is completely believable and keeps the audience laughing. And there is a motorcycle chase, never a bad thing.
The British officer Ramsey is just as you would expect him to be, a polite, soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humor, and a penchant for tea and biscuits. The “Cooler King,” Captain Hilts, is the brash American, out looking for fun and glory without a care in the world. He doesn’t mind paying the price, and hope springs eternal that this next time, ever the next time, he will be successful. Flight Lieutenant Hendley “the Scrounger” is the second American and he is the American good ol’ boy, tall and broad-shouldered, yet gifted with a big heart. He looks after one of the men whose sight is slowly going bad and stays with him even if it means getting caught.
Good action and explosions make a fun movie, good plot makes an interesting movie and good characters make an engaging movie. When a movie has all three like “The Great Escape,” audiences beware. It is a movie chock full of action and comedy, with rises and falls that take the audience for a wild ride even now, 46 years after it first hit theaters.