In theatres 50 years ago this week: The Great Escape
(1963) Directed by John Sturges
Sturges’ big adventure film is one of the classic popcorn movie/guy pictures, and that’s because this yarn about a mass escape from a German POW camp is actually a caper movie, in the manner of Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes, The Train, or almost any movie about a bank heist. (Behind-the-scenes photos, above, suggest that cast and crew were having a great time) Throw in the fact that the story is loosely based on real events, and you have a perennial favorite of a certain generation. Actually, any generation qualifies, because guys of all ages seem never to tire of watching regular Joes outfox a bunch of Nazis.
On that note, one especially pleasing running gag in the story is the con arranged by James Garner’s character, who is just one more version of Rockford or Maverick. He’s the camp’s hustler/con artist in charge of securing impossible-to-find materials, and he begins trading with a young prison guard for harmless snacks and cigarettes. Once he has the young fellow in the dangerous position of fraternizing with the enemy, he begins blackmailing the lad for more serious goods. Garner good-naturedly, but relentlessly, tightens the screws: “That Werner’s a mixed-up kid, but I like him,” he quips.
The production boasts an all-star American/British cast with plenty of emerging talent, an abundance of Nazi uniforms and machine guns, a brilliant, memorable score by Elmer Bernstein—and it’s all, um, captured on 70-mm Panavision stock. Better still, Steve McQueen (in an iconic role) tears around the countryside on a vintage motorcycle, getting damn close to eluding the Germans until he reaches one barbwire fence too far.